The Energy 202: Oil lobby seeks to boost support for offshore drilling despite bipartisan opposition

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THE LIGHTBULB

Top oil and natural gas lobbyists are attempting to breathe life into a Trump administration plan to expand offshore drilling across U.S. coasts despite vocal opposition from Democrats and even many Republicans in seaside states.

The American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. oil and gas lobbying group, launched an initiative Wednesday called “Explore Offshore” that attempts to boost public support for offshore development.

The oil and gas industry's public relations and community outreach push comes eight years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill hurt the reputation of offshore drilling in much of the American consciousness, weighing against the odds the U.S. public will want to risk expanding offshore drilling even further.

It also comes after Zinke told Congress in April that he will scale back the Trump administration's plan after many Republican governors, senators and representatives from coastal states, many of which are sustained by tourism, issued not-on-my-beach denouncements of the Interior Department proposal. 

The Trump administration originally called for exploring the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean for petroleum. Now, the oil and gas lobby is signaling where they most want to do seismic test for new oil and gas reserves underwater: along the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida, and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

API is borrowing a tack of environmental groups by rallying to its side community leaders like former Fayetteville, N.C., mayor Nat Robertson (R) and South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce chairman Stephen Gilchrist.

“They’re definitely taking a page from our playbook,” said Eileen Woll, offshore energy program director for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, who said that she and colleagues have similarly encouraged coastal city councils to pass resolutions against offshore drilling.

Co-chairing the entire coalition are former senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Jim Nicholson, a former Republican National Committee Chairman and ex-secretary of veterans affairs, who in a conference call with reporters emphasized the higher-than-average-paying jobs in the oil business and geopolitical benefit of not needing to depend on foreign oil.

"Energy security is national security," said Webb, who once served as Navy secretary and who as a senator introduced legislation to allow offshore development in Virginia.

The national defense argument can cut the other way, too. Some in the military community fear offshore oil development, especially near naval bases like those in Virginia, may hamper maritime exercises.

With updated technology, API also argued, drilling is safer than it was in 2010.

“This can now all be done in a clean and safe manner due to extraordinary new technology and drilling procedures,” Nicholson said.

But Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society, said the industry adopted safer drilling technology only after the administration of President Barack Obama called for new rules after Deepwater Horizon. Those regulations include safety-monitoring and well-control rules the Trump administration is attempting to revise at the prompting of industry.

“I am questioning whether that we’ll maintain the same level of safety,” Epstein said. “They say it will, I say it won’t.”

U.S. drillers’ interest in the Atlantic is fueled by recent discoveries of large reserves elsewhere in the ocean off the coasts of Brazil and Guyana. And the eastern Gulf, off the coast of Florida, remains an attractive prize not only because of its potential reserves but also because the industry has existing infrastructure in the region for ongoing oil extraction off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas.

Soon after rolling out the offshore proposal at the beginning of the year, Zinke said he would exempt Florida from consideration at the request of Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Interior officials later said the decision on Florida was not final, but the move still prompted a bipartisan uproar from elected officials asking why their states were not exempted too.

Webb, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 and who later said the Democratic Party has moved "very far to the left," is a member of a more moderate species of Democrats open to offshore drilling whose numbers have dwindled in Washington.

Even Obama, during his first term, proposed opening the Atlantic coastline and eastern Gulf to drilling before the BP spill. 

Eight years later, the BP disaster still looms large. By the end of 2016, Obama banned oil drilling in large areas of the Atlantic and Arctic.

"I was in the Senate when the BP incident occurred," Webb said. "No one wants to see that sort of thing happen again."

POWER PLAYS

— Scott Pruitt’s game of chicken: Here’s what EPA chief Scott Pruitt had to say when asked about reports he wanted to help his wife open a Chick-fil-A franchise:

“I just think with great change comes, I think, opposition. There’s significant changes happening across not only the EPA but this administration, and it’s needed. Look, my wife is an entrepreneur herself. I love, she loves, we love —  Chick-fil-A is a franchise of faith and it’s one of the best in the country. And that’s something we were very excited about it. We need more of them in Tulsa, we need more of them across the country. So anyway, it’s an exciting time.”

Watch his response to reporter Jessica Smith below:

Digging the hole deeper: Lawrence Noble, former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, explained to The Post’s Philip Bump why Pruitt’s most recent remarks may be problematic. “Rather than saying, you know that was a mistake, I shouldn’t have done that, or, it was totally innocent or saying nothing, he tries to defend it by touting the excellence of Chick-fil-A as a franchise. It’s as if he just doesn’t care,” Noble said. Noble added Pruitt “doubled and tripled down” on his actions. “It’s really blatant.”

Reminder: The real issue with the Chick-fil-A fiasco is not the particular restaurant — but that Pruitt seemingly used his position, as well as EPA staff, for the private gain for his family.

— Another day, another (two) Pruitt aides gone: Millan Hupp, the EPA’s director of scheduling and advance, and Sarah Greenwalt, Pruitt’s senior counsel, have both resigned from the agency, The Post reported Wednesday. Both had received large, controversial salary hikes last year over objections from the White House. Hupp also testified to lawmakers that she spent her time completing personal tasks for Pruitt, including inquiring about a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington and contacting Chick-fil-A.

Always read to the kicker: Reached by phone for comment, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told The Atlantic’s Elaina Pott, who broke the story of Hupp's departure: “You have a great day, you’re a piece of trash.”

— What does Trump think? Meanwhile, the president reiterated his support for Pruitt on Wednesday. During a briefing at Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters, he said the EPA is “doing really, really well.” "Thank you Scott, very much. EPA is doing really, really well,” Trump told Pruitt. "Somebody has to say that about you a little bit, you know that, Scott.”

— A hurricane briefing that was anything but: That 40-minute behind-closed-doors briefing on Wednesday was meant to be about hurricane preparedness, but Trump talked instead about "his prowess in negotiating airplane deals, his popularity, the effectiveness of his political endorsements, the Republican Party’s fortunes, the vagaries of Defense Department purchasing guidelines, his dislike of magnetized launch equipment on aircraft carriers, his unending love of coal and his breezy optimism about his planned Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un," The Post’s Josh Dawsey reports.

The president did briefly mention Puerto Rico during a 15-minute address to the cameras ahead of the briefing, but did not mention Puerto Rico’s victims instead thanking Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) for helping.

— “The constant drip needs to stop:” Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Republicans are beginning to lose patience with Pruitt, despite the support for his deregulatory actions, Politico reports. “The constant drip needs to stop so the agency can get its footing and focus back,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told reporters. “They’re doing some really good work in the environmental front, but this needs to stop.” And Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told reporters that “[s]ometimes people get tripped up on other things besides the core mission, and I think that’s what you’re seeing.”

— Another Pruitt mess in the mess hall: Pruitt earned a rebuke from the White House after he ate too many times at the White House mess. “In response to Pruitt's recurring use of the restaurant next to the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing, a member of the White House’s Cabinet affairs team told agency chiefs of staff in a meeting last year that Cabinet members shouldn't treat the mess as their personal dining hall,” Politico reports. “Pruitt has been known to complain that EPA headquarters has no cafeteria of its own and no private dining quarters."

— Why does Pruitt still have a job? The Post’s Amber Phillips has four theories:

  1. Trump likes him. Pruitt isn’t the only social conservative who rejects mainstream climate science that the president could have picked to lead the agency. But the president likes Pruitt, Trump likes that his base likes Pruitt, and Trump likes the track record of weakening Obama-era environmental regulations that he can tout to his supporters.
  2. Trump’s reflex is to defend his people. “Trump is so loyal to certain people it has even brought him legal scrutiny,” Amber writes.
  3. It might even be too late to fire Pruitt. The questions swirling about Pruitt began making headlines in March, and so far the White House has continued to support Pruitt, even while acknowledging the struggles and saying they will look into it. “To kick Pruitt out now might make it look like they are caving to public pressure after months of trying to hold strong,” she writes.
  4. Republicans are avoiding it anyway. Republican lawmakers aren’t putting much pressure on the president about Pruitt’s continued role. As The Energy 202 wrote on Wednesday, the heat Pruitt is receiving from two Iowa Republicans this week is not so much about ethical violations, but about a wonky policy proposal about gasoline and diesel.

— “It’s not going to deter me”: Ryan Zinke dismissed questions about the ethical allegations against him, as well as questions about his travel in an interview with SiriusXM’s "The Morning Briefing with Tim Farley." “We follow the laws. It’s just political rhetoric," he said Wednesday. "At the end of the day, it’s not going to deter me from doing what’s right. And I live by two things. Number one, the fight for freedom never ends. And two, do right and fear no man.”

Watch the full interview from Zinke above.

— Senator warns pope about oil executives: As Pope Francis prepares to discuss climate change with executives from major oil companies later this week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the industry's harshest critics in the Senate, told the Catholic leader in a letter there is a gap between what oil firms say and what they actually do on climate change.

“Many of the oil companies with which you will be meeting are fond of saying, in essence, ‘we know climate change is real; we know our product causes it; and we support a price on carbon as a solution,’” Whitehouse wrote. "As the primary author of the United States Senate’s carbon-pricing legislation, I can assure you of the absence of any support from the large oil companies." Sens. Whitehouse and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) have put forward legislation putting a price on carbon emission.  

— Trump officials took actions on energy policies suggested by coal tycoon: Trump officials enacted energy policies that resemble suggestions submitted by coal magnate Robert E. Murray in the early days of the administration, The Post’s Steven Mufson and Chris Mooney report. “In two instances, the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency took steps within a month similar to Murray’s ideas to roll back what he called “anti-coal” policies,” they write, citing newly released documents.

— House bill would boost water projects: House lawmakers are working to approve a nearly $3 billion bill that would boost funding for the nation’s ports, dams and harbors, and protect against floods and restore shorelines, along with other water-related projects. The Water Resources Development Act would authorize nearly $1 billion for a project to address coastal erosion in Galveston, Tex., restore wetlands and marshes damaged following Hurricane Harvey, expand Savannah, Ga.’s harbor and call in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study projects related to flood risks, the Associated Press reports. The Senate is also considering similar legislation.

OIL CHECK

— No more monkeying around: Volkswagen has reinstated its chief lobbyist after an investigation into tests the carmaker conducted that exposed monkeys to diesel fumes. Thomas Steg, Volkswagen’s head of external relations and sustainability, was reinstated Wednesday after an internal investigation found no evidence of legal misconduct related to the tests, according to Reuters. “I was neither responsible for the planning, the authorization or the commissioning of this study,” Steg told reporters Wednesday. “The study was unnecessary and of no scientific use, it should have never happened.”

— Venezuela relents: The South American nation has released two of Chevron’s executives who were arrested and have been held since April.  The executives had been arrested for refusing to sign a contract with the state-owned oil company. “The arrests were the first at a foreign oil firm since the government launched a purge last year that has resulted in detentions of more than 80 executives at [state oil company PDVSA] and partners,” according to Reuters.

— “Elon Time:” Shortly after the electric carmaker’s shareholders voted to maintain Elon Musk as the chairman of Tesla, he acknowledged what he described as his long-held trouble with punctuality. “I think I do have, like, an issue with time,” Musk said Tuesday, The Post’s Peter Holley reports. “I’m a naturally optimistic person. I wouldn’t have done cars or rockets if I wasn’t. I’m trying to recalibrate as much as possible.” In recent months, Tesla has missed deadlines for rolling out its much anticipated Model 3, the sedan that represents Tesla’s crucial attempt to break into the mainstream car market.

— Before you plan your vacation: The price of jet fuel has increased 50 percent in the past year, the New York Times reports, which means airlines may have to increase ticket costs and lower capacity. Delta Air Lines is the latest carrier to lower its profit forecast over the sharp fuel price spike, per the report. 

THERMOMETER

— A striking slowdown: Hurricanes around the world have experienced a slowdown over the last 65 years, according to new research, which signals that storms are getting more dangerous. The study, published in the journal Nature, found a 10 percent slowdown in storm speed from 1949 to 2016, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. “Slower-moving storms will rain more over a given area, batter that area longer with their winds and pile up more water ahead of them as they approach shorelines,” Mooney writes, citing study author Jim Kossin, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

— Coastal calamity: Coastal areas across the nation flooded more than ever this year as a result of sea-level rise and storms, NOAA said in a report Wednesday. “Tide gauges at 98 coastal locations in the U.S. indicated flooding on a record-breaking six days on average,” The Post’s Jason Samenow writes. “More than a quarter of these gauges tied or broke previous records for the number of days with flooding.”

— Man, it’s a hot one: Temperatures in May warmed to a record average of 65.4 degrees in the Lower 48 states, beating a previous record from 1934 by .7 degrees, the Associated Press reports. “Weather stations in the nation broke or tied nearly 8,600 daily heat records in May," reports the AP, citing NOAA data. Agency climate scientist Jake Crouch said man-made climate change was partly to blame for the record-breaking month.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on hydropower licensing process/
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the “Electric Grid of the Future."
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds an oversight hearing on “Wildfire Risk, Forest Health, and Associated Management Priorities of the U.S. Forest Service."

EXTRA MILEAGE

— A new lava-formed coastline: