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Overnight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training

The Hill logo The Hill 9/25/2020 Rachel Frazin
a herd of animals grazing on a lush green field: Overnight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training © Getty Images Overnight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training

TGIF! 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.

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IF A BUNCH OF TREES FALL IN THE FOREST...The Trump administration has finalized a plan to open previously protected areas of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging.

The 9.37 million acre area was previously protected under the 2001 roadless rule, which prevents road construction as well as timber harvesting without roads in the National Forest System, but the new environmental impact assessment brings the administration one step closer to exempting it from those protections.

Issuing the final environmental impact assessment doesn't officially put the plan in motion, but it sets the stage for the administration to put forth a record of decision doing just that.

The Tongass National Forest is a major carbon sink, meaning its trees soak up carbon from the atmosphere, lessening the impacts of climate change. The Forest Service found in 2016 that it stores more carbon than any other forest in the country.

Critics expressed concern that opening the Tongass up to logging will lessen its ability to do so.

"The Tongass National Forest contains centuries-old trees that provide home to wildlife and play a key role in storing carbon which mitigates climate change. The administration's quest to open up nine million acres of this pristine forest to be clear cut would be an ecological atrocity," said Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement.

"This extreme proposal will harm a stunning array of wildlife, threaten wild salmon populations, and undermine local economies that depend on a vibrant outdoor recreation industry," O'Mara said.

The plan said that activities like timber harvesting "tend to approximate and promote natural processes that would also release carbon to the atmosphere."

"Many management activities initially remove carbon from the forest ecosystem, but they can also result in long-term maintenance or increases in forest carbon uptake and storage by improving forest health and resilience to various types of stressors," it said.

In 2018, the state of Alaska asked the federal government to open up the area to logging, arguing that it would help support the economy.

Lawmakers from the state expressed their support for the move on Friday.

"A full exemption from the Roadless Rule is about access - access to recreation, renewable energy and more," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R). "This puts us on track for a Record of Decision and final rule by the end of the year, in turn opening the door for individuals and communities throughout Southeast to build a more sustainable economy while still ensuring good stewardship of our lands and waters."

The plan would open up 168,000 acres of older trees and 20,000 acres of younger trees to logging. Studies have suggested that older trees store more carbon than younger trees.

Read more about the final environmental impact assessment here.

Speaking of Alaska...

Alaska Sens. Dan Sullivan (R) and Lisa Murkowski (R) again spoke out against the proposed Pebble Mine, a controversial project located in a major salmon-producing area, late Thursday.

"In my Aug. 24 statement, which I unequivocally stand by, I announced my opposition to Pebble Mine & said it should not be permitted b/c it does not meet the high standards we demand for all resource projects in AK," Sullivan tweeted. "Let me be even more clear: I oppose Pebble Mine. No Pebble Mine."

In response, Murkowski tweeted three hearts and a GIF of a salmon jumping from the water.

Their tweets follow the publication of secretly recorded tapes in which executives at companies behind the mine boasted about their relationship with the politicians and expressed optimism that they were supportive of the project.

TESTING, TESTING, 123: Testing for offshore oil and gas isn't preempted in states where there's a temporary ban on drilling, the federal government said in court filings this week.

Federal lawyers said testing is governed separately from drilling, so the government may issue permits for this activity, including through a process called seismic testing.

Seismic testing uses blasts from air guns to try to detect oil and gas deposits in the ocean. Environmentalists have raised concerns about the practice's impacts on marine life.

The filing said that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management can "authorize seismic surveys in the Outer Continental Shelf ("OCS") even in areas of the OCS that are not open to oil and gas exploration under the ... leasing process."

"Entities seeking to conduct seismic surveys can therefore obtain a permit in any area of the OCS, including those areas that have been withdrawn from leasing," it said.

The government's announcement follows a decision by President Trump to prevent drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina until mid-2032. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis (R) has said his state will also be included.

The court filing came in response to a request from the court to clarify whether the moratorium changes the proposed plan to proceed with seismic testing by five companies.

It's part of a lawsuit filed by green groups challenging key approvals received by the companies. Kristen Monsell, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, criticized the filing and argued that it could hint that the government is planning a post-election reversal of the ban.

"The new filing is perfectly consistent with a scenario in which Trump reverses course yet again and opens every part of the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling," Monsell said.

"Seismic testing's sonic blasts harm whales and other marine life, and they set the stage for future drilling and devastating oil spills," she added.

The Interior Department is insisting that the moratorium will remain in place.

"President Trump's memorandum prohibits all leasing activity off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. As such, there will be no oil and gas development in these areas through at least 2032," said department solicitor Dan Jorjani in a statement.

Read more about the filings here.

GETTING SOME PUSHBACK: Three House Democrats are questioning the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) decision to postpone a training that was part of a series on environmental inequity faced by communities of color and low-income communities last month.

The EPA's decision to put off the event came in response to a White House memo telling agencies to "cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund...divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions."

Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) wrote to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Friday expressing worry about the impact this decision will have on the agency.

"We are concerned that EPA's decision to suspend these events may undermine its mission by discounting the underlying factors, including systemic racism, that contribute to unequal environmental and health conditions. Environmental justice trainings are fundamentally intertwined with EPA's responsibility to advance clean air and water for all Americans, and therefore these training sessions should not be canceled," they wrote.

The decision followed the memo from earlier this month, which asserted that unspecified press reports indicated taxpayer dollars were being spent on training where employees "are told that 'virtually all White people contribute to racism' or where they are required to say that they 'benefit from racism.'"

In addition to telling the agency to cease and desist, it also told them to identify contracts or spending relating to any training on topics such as white privilege.

EPA spokesperson James Hewitt told The Hill in an email that Pallone is "conflating two separate issues for political purposes as the [White House] directive aims to ensure we are appropriately using taxpayer money."

"The Trump administration is committed to helping environmental justice communities that have long been ignored by previous administrations," Hewitt said.

The lawmakers asked the agency to provide a description of all EPA events or trainings that were paused or canceled because of the memo, as well as any contracts that it identified as possibly falling under the memo.

The story is here.

But wait...there's more!

Following the White House memo, the Interior Department is also postponing diversity and race training, E&E News reported Friday.

ON TAP NEXT WEEK:

On Tuesday:

  • The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing titled "Police Cameras at the Department of the Interior: Inconsistencies, Failures, and Consequences." Witnesses include Kelly Ghaisar, the mother of Bijan Ghaisar, who was killed by Park Police in 2017.

On Wednesday:

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing titled "Coping with compound crises: extreme weather, social injustice, and a global pandemic"

On Thursday:

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on improving clean energy access and affordability.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on an environmental justice bill

OUTSIDE (AND INSIDE) THE BELTWAY:

Oil and gas companies must monitor fracking emissions as Colorado adopts first-in-the-nation rules to reduce air pollution, the Colorado Sun reports

Feds: Relax protections for woodpecker endangered since 1970, The Associated Press reports

Global warming driving California wildfire trends - study, The BBC reports

ICYMI: Stories from Friday...

New Jersey legislature sends paper bag ban to governor

Democrats question EPA postponement of environmental inequality training

Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium

Trump administration finalizes plan to open up protected areas of Tongass National Forest to logging

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