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Virtual Public Comment Forums are Creating Concerns on Oil Expansion Project

As social distancing continues, the Trump Administration has organized virtual meetings to receive public comment on the oil and gas drilling expansion efforts on Native lands. Local Native Americans are concerned that Zoom calls will hinder their ability to comment of the project. Many Native American groups do not have easy access to the Internet, in addition to the technical difficulties that can be experienced when using a virtual platform. Many groups and some lawmakers believe that the public comment period should be delayed until everyone can appropriately comment on the drilling expansion. Read More.

This story has been reprinted on the CHEJ website from the Washington Post by Dino Grandoni.

The Energy 202: Public hearings on Zoom have Native Americans worried they won’t be heard on oil projects

May 18
with Paulina Firozi
The Trump administration is holding virtual public meetings during the coronavirus pandemic to move forward with long-standing plans to expand oil and gas development on public lands. Native American groups, many of whom lack consistent access to the Internet, are worried their voices will not be heard.This is a big obstacle in their fight to stop projects set to take place on lands with cultural significance to them. 

Tribal groups also say the government’s effort to gather feedback, as required by law, on its efforts to expand drilling in both Alaska’s North Slope and in northwest New Mexico has been plagued with technical issues. Since the hearings transitioned to Zoom with much of the nation on lockdown, tribal groups in both states and other opponents to the projects report that speakers were disconnected due to bad connections or even muted by moderators.

“How many North Slope members have access to WiFi?” Raymond Ipalook, vice president of the tribal council in the Alaska Native village of Nuiqsut, asked during one virtual hearing on April 21. “That’s what I want to know. How many of them know that this webinar is going on?”

But officials at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees federal oil and gas leasing, says these virtual town halls have allowed more people than ever to weigh in on drilling plans.

More than 300 people participated in the eight virtual public meetings in Alaska while 100 participated in the first in New Mexico on Thursday, with yet more viewing on Facebook, the BLM said. By contrast, 250 attendees showed up to six in-person meetings held in Anchorage, Fairbanks and other spots in Alaska last year.

“It is important to maintain a capable and functioning government during the COVID-19 outbreak,” BLM spokesman Derrick Henry said in an email.

The pandemic has upended the usual way the government solicits feedback on its efforts to expand drilling.

Gone are the gatherings in middle-school auditoriums or hotel conference rooms the BLM used to organize to get feedback on proposals changing the way it manages public lands, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Since mid-April, the agency has held a dozen virtual meetings — eight for an oil project in the Alaskan Arctic and four for a proposed plan that would govern oil and gas drilling across northwestern New Mexico. A 13th meeting is scheduled in New Mexico for Monday.

But many Native Americans say securing Internet access and taking the time to meaningfully comment is too big of a hurdle during a health crisis.

During the virtual hearing Thursday jointly held by the the Interior Department’s BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs, all but a handful of speakers asked the government to pause the public comment period. They want more time to weigh in before the government moves forward with a new resource management plan that would bring energy and other development closer to cultural sites considered sacred to New Mexico’s Pueblos and other tribal groups within the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Marissa Naranjo, policy director with the All Pueblo Council of Governors, noted that the two counties surrounding the protected area have some the highest coronavirus infection rates in New Mexico. 

Because the Pueblos have followed federal guidelines and closed nonessential operations, she said, the tribal government did not have the staff available to mount a full-throated response in opposition to the plan.

“Although I am participating in today’s virtual public meeting, I want to make clear that APCG and our member Pueblos have not had the resources necessary to meaningfully comment,” Naranjo said.

The coronavirus situation is even worse in the Navajo Nation, which claims ancestral ties to the Chaco Canyon area and has an infection rate that is among the highest in the world.

The tribes’ concerns have caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington, with the entire New Mexico congressional delegation asking for an extension to the public comment period for at least 120 days. In a March 31 letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, several Democratic lawmakers wrote that “it is imperative that the public be given sufficient time to submit comments.”

At least one Zoom participant in Alaska complained to BLM about being cut off during her comments.

For Martha Itta, a tribal administrator for the Alaska Native village of Nuiqsut, the Trump administration’s decision to forge ahead with the public comment period compounds the controversy around ConocoPhillips’s plans to add an airstrip, pipelines and up to 250 new wells to its operations in Alaska’s remote North Slope. While oil and gas taxes provide most of the North Slope’s municipal funding, some residents worry how the increase in drilling will affect the caribou herd from which they hunt half their food.

Itta said she had to log on to a virtual meeting on April 23 while taking care of a sick grandson, whom she worried at the time had covid-19. “They’ve caused a lot more stress and more fear as we’re trying to protect our families,” said Itta, whose grandchild later tested negative.

At one point, Itta said, she was muted while giving an impassioned testimony asking the agency to put a pause on its oil and gas plans during the pandemic. Later during the virtual meeting, she was able to finish her comment, but the next day Itta wrote a letter to the agency saying she was “very frustrated and saddened” by the experience.

While not addressing Itta’s letter specifically, BLM spokesman Henry said that at times “the mute function is necessary to avoid cross-talk so all participants can hear, or in rare instances to limit broadcasting offensive language.”

Ipalook, the vice president of Nuiqsut’s tribal council, complained during a webinar focused on North Slope communities that the federal government’s move cut off critical input. Many North Slope residents have traditionally gathered in person or submitted handwritten comments, he said. While Ipalook added that he went to the tribal office to log onto the webinar, that’s not an option for many residents in the region.

“This is improper. This goes way beyond the limitations of what the government can and cannot do when pertaining to receiving comments,” Ipalook said during his five-minute statement, noting that an hour into the webinar few people had logged on. “Our comments here in Nuiqsut are not being heard enough. And I want everyone who’s online on the North Slope to be aware of that, that our concerns are not being heard.”

Later in a phone interview, Ipalook said that the switch to virtual consultations made it particularly hard for tribal elders to participate. When village residents gather in person for such hearings, he said, “We have elders that listen in and comment, and spark an idea or comment after that.”

Trump administration officials says it is offering plenty of options to weigh in.

Members of the public can still weigh in by mail or fax, and the BLM is offering a telephone-only option to allow those with limited online access. About 10 percent of the participants during Thursday’s virtual meeting for the resource plan for northwest New Mexico took advantage of that option, according to the agency.

“Conducting virtual public meetings to gather input ensures the safety of communities and provides interested citizens with an opportunity to get information more easily,” Henry said.

The agency said it is still considering requests to delay the two comment periods, but has yet to make any decisions.

A new anti-Trump ad links the president’s wild coronavirus rhetoric to his record on climate change.

The 30-second spot from the League of Conservation Voters, which officially supports former vice president Joe Biden, makes the case that the president’s efforts to downplay the impact of the coronavirus and to deny the impact humans are having on the planet’s atmosphere are two sides of the same coin.

“He denied the warnings of the coronavirus crisis,” the ad intones. “And Donald Trump ignored 97% of climate scientists, NASA, and the Department of Defense, who agreed that climate change is real.”

The online ad is part of $14 million digital and direct-mail buy from LCV, which starting on Monday is targeting voters in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Oil check

Oil companies have benefited from a tax change in the stimulus bill Congress passed in March.

Dozens of oil firms are claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in tax rebates as they take advantage of a provision in the $2 trillion stimulus law that passed in March that expands their ability to deduct recent losses, Bloomberg News reports.

Jesse Coleman, a senior researcher with the watchdog group Documented, called it a “stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry.”

“The change wasn’t aimed only at the oil industry. However, its structure uniquely benefits energy companies that were raking in record profits in 2018 as crude prices reached $76.41 per barrel, only to see their fortunes flip a year later,” per the report. “More than $1.9 billion in CARES Act tax benefits are being claimed by at least 37 oil companies, service firms and contractors, according to a Bloomberg News review of recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

Coronavirus fallout

Summer weather could help combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, but it won’t fully stop it, according to new research.

“A new working paper and database put together by researchers at Harvard Medical School, MIT and other institutions examines a host of weather conditions, from temperature and relative humidity to precipitation, at 3,739 locations worldwide to try to determine the ‘relative covid-19 risk due to weather,’” Andrew Freedman and Joel Achenbach report. “They found that average temperatures above 77 degrees are associated with a reduction in the virus’s transmission.”

But infectious-disease experts warn that if summer conditions push people to abandon efforts — such as social distancing — during the summer, that could nullify any benefit from summer conditions that halt the spread.

To that point, Reuters reports on the way summer weather has pulled people out of their pandemic restrictions around the globe.

“People are streaming back to beaches, parks and streets just as a heat wave hits southern Europe and spring-like temperatures allow Americans to shed winter coats,” per the report. “As they venture out again, most are keeping their distance and some are wearing masks. However, protests are also heating up from Germany to England to the United States, arguing the government restrictions demolish personal liberties and are wrecking economies.”

A top Democrat presses the National Park Service for information on its reopening plan.

In a letter sent Friday, House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) asked the agency to turn over documents pertaining to the phased reopening of Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades and other parks throughout the country, which some former parks employees worry is happening too soon.

“I urge you to exercise extreme caution with the planned phased reopening of national parks – some of our country’s most popular travel destinations – and to delay reopening sites until the safety of employees, visitors, volunteers, and those who live closest to our public lands can be ensured,” Grijalva wrote.

In other news

The first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season has formed.

The tropical storm named Arthur formed east of Florida on Saturday night, weeks ahead of the formal June 1 start to the season. It’s the sixth year in a row that a tropical or subtropical storm has developed ahead of the season’s start.

“Preseason tropical and subtropical cyclones used to be rather rare,” Matthew Cappucci and Andrew Freedman write. “But they are becoming increasingly common, which some studies show may be a result of warming ocean waters from human-caused climate change.”

The storm is expected to make its closest pass to North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Monday morning, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration has rejected a permit for a natural gas pipeline from New Jersey to New York.

“The Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline, which also would need some permits in New Jersey, was proposed to run 37 miles from New Jersey across the New York Harbor to connect to the pipeline system off Long Island,” Politico reports. “The Department of Environmental Conservation said the construction of the pipeline in the ecologically sensitive, historically contaminated and recovering area — particularly near Raritan Bay — would have an unacceptable negative impact on water quality. It’s also incompatible with the state’s goal to reduce emissions by 85 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.”

In a letter to the company behind the proposed pipeline, the Democratic governor’s administration said that “the continued long-term use of fossil fuels is inconsistent with the State’s laws and objectives and with the actions necessary to prevent the most severe impacts from climate change.”

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