The Oil Lobby’s COVID-19 Wish List

The American Petroleum Institute sent Trump’s Interior Department a lengthy list of demands in March to help it weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Alan Zibel < Great piece, based on some nice FOIA work by Jesse Coleman at Documented.

10/22/2020 by Chris D’Angelo and Alexander C. Kaufman, Huffington Post

As the coronavirus pandemic upended the U.S. economy, the head of the oil and gas sector’s leading trade association declared that fossil fuel companies weren’t looking for government handouts to stay afloat. 

“This is an industry that believes in the free market, it believes in supply and demand as the best arbiter of price,” Mike Sommers, CEO and president of the American Petroleum Institute, told Yahoo Finance in an April 23 interview. “So we’re not asking for any extra help from the federal government. We’re not interested in any bailouts.” 

But API had already sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist, a month earlier, outlining two dozen temporary actions it wanted the Interior Department to take to help the industry through the pandemic. These included waiving “non-essential compliance obligations,” conducting remote site inspections and delaying penalties for failing to meet enforcement deadlines. 

The corporate watchdog group Documented obtained API’s March 25 wish list for the Interior Department through a public records request and shared it exclusively with HuffPost. 

The letter to Bernhardt from API policy executive Frank Macchiarola includes a four-page attachment with numerous requests for the Interior bureaus that permit and manage oil and gas development, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Among other things, Macchiarola urged Bernhardt to automatically extend the terms of offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico and, perhaps most significantly, give companies up to a year of additional time to safely shutter defunct and abandoned wells if facing contractor limitations or supply chain disruptions. 

“We look forward to partnering with you to help ensure that energy resources are available, so that we as a nation can continue to respond to this crisis,” Macchiarola wrote.

API also requested regulatory relief in a March 20 letter to President Donald Trump and a March 23 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, as Reuters and The Hill previously reported.

A worker wears a protective helmet decorated with stickers during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an oil well near Mead,

ASSOCIATED PRESSA worker wears a protective helmet decorated with stickers during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an oil well near Mead, Colorado.

News reports and other publicly available information indicate the Interior Department implemented some of API’s requests, postponing certain onsite inspections and approving applications for lease suspensions, which stops the clock on set lease terms if circumstances affect a company’s production. It’s unclear whether other wish list items have been fulfilled.

Critics say the Interior Department has not been transparent about actions it has taken to assist domestic producers amid the ongoing pandemic. The department did not respond to specific questions about the API list. Instead, Interior Department spokesperson Conner Swanson accused HuffPost of attempting “to manufacture correlations and controversy where there is none.”

API did not respond to a request for comment.

The API letter to the Interior Department is further evidence that the oil, gas and petrochemical industries are “exploiting” the COVID-19 crisis to obtain subsidies and regulatory relief, the true costs of which are still being tallied, said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, an environmental nonprofit.

“While they may say that they weren’t going to the government for handouts, the truth is they’ve gone to the government repeatedly and often in ways that are invisible to anyone outside the industry or the government itself,” Muffett said. And from most outside indications, the administration has “bent over backwards” to assist, he said.

President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable meeting with energy sector CEOs at the White House on April 3. U.S. oil com

POOL VIA GETTY IMAGESPresident Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable meeting with energy sector CEOs at the White House on April 3. U.S. oil companies were hit hard by both the effects of the coronavirus and from foreign pressures caused by Russia and Saudi Arabia in the oil markets. 

No Special Favors, Trump Administration Says

In more than 500 cases since the pandemic began, the Bureau of Land Management gave energy companies breaks on royalty payments they owed for drilling on public lands. That relief policy drew fire from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which concluded that BLM reduced fees without first determining if such relief was needed to keep wells from shutting down.  

In its March letter to the Interior Department, API specifically requested that BLM “extend the life of existing federal permits, extension of current leases or a pause on the timing of leases, and grant requests for suspension of production.”

In response to the critical GAO report, bureau spokesperson Derrick Henry told The Hill that BLM’s offices “only approved suspension of operations and royalty rate reduction applications for up to 60 days when it was legally permissible, in the best interest of the United States, and when it would encourage the greatest ultimate recovery of our natural resources.”

Swanson told HuffPost the same thing.

“While numerous organizations, stakeholders, and elected officials asked for blanket relief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the [Interior] Department continued to fulfill its obligations under the law and provided guidance for how operators could apply within existing regulations,” Swanson said. “No special circumstances were granted to anyone.”

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API’s wish list also called for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to conduct facility inspections virtually rather than onsite to reduce offshore workers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19.  

The Interior Department’s internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, concluded in a September report that BSEE did adapt its inspection process for blowout preventers, a device designed to automatically seal a well in the event of an uncontrolled release of oil and gas, to allow for remote testing, but that it failed to provide inspectors with guidance on how to witness the test in real time via the operators’ software systems.  

While they may say that they weren’t going to the government for handouts, the truth is they’ve gone to the government repeatedly.Carroll Muffett, Center for International Environmental Law

Fighting For An Ailing Industry

Trump’s first term promised an imperious new era for American oil and gas companies, with its focus on deregulating everything from methane emissions to offshore drilling safety to fuel mileage in new cars. Yet 2020 has revealed how much the fossil fuel industry’s economic strength depended on its political might. A sudden plunge in oil prices ― the result of an overseas price war and a drop in demand due to the coronavirus lockdowns ― sent a shockwave through the industry, prompting a wave of bankruptcies among smaller U.S. drillers. 

At the end of July, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corporation, the country’s top two oil giants, reported unprecedented quarterly losses. In October, the market value of clean energy giant NextEra briefly surpassed Exxon Mobil, marking what financial analysts saw as a milestone in the shift away from climate-changing energy sources.  

In response, the Trump administration went all out to boost the ailing industry. In March, the Department of Homeland Security deemed all energy sector work, including the construction of pipelines and compressor stations, critical for the pandemic response.

After the Treasury Department publicly weighed a direct bailout of troubled drillers, the Federal Reserve bought up a disproportionate share of distressed oil and gas debt. A recent report from environmental and consumer groups calculated those corporate bonds to be worth nearly $100 billion. 

And more than 7,000 oil, gas and petrochemical companies have received a total of $3 billion to $7 billion in coronavirus relief through the Paycheck Protection Program, according to an analysis Documented conducted for Sierra Magazine. 

President Donald Trump arrives to deliver a speech during a tour of an oil rig in Midland, Texas, in July. a

CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERSPresident Donald Trump arrives to deliver a speech during a tour of an oil rig in Midland, Texas, in July. a

Industry watchdogs and climate advocates have certainly noticed the lavish help extended to Trump’s favored industry.

“One would be hard-pressed to find another sector in the U.S. economy that has requested and received more in taxpayer-funded bailouts and other giveaways from the Trump administration than Big Oil,” Jayson O’Neill, director of Western Values Project, told HuffPost.

And Alan Zibel, research director at Public Citizen’s Corporate Presidency Project, said the fossil fuel industry “has been seizing on the pandemic as a convenient excuse to fulfill longstanding deregulatory objectives.” He stressed that it makes no sense to grant special favors to the industry most responsible for driving the climate crisis.

This week, the president publicly called on the industry’s biggest players to return the backscratch. During a campaign stop in Arizona on Monday, the president joked about how, if he wanted to, he could easily outraise Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden by shaking down the CEOs of oil majors like Exxon Mobil.

“So I call some guy, the head of Exxon. I call the head of Exxon. I don’t know,” Trump said hypothetically. “Hi, how are you doing? How’s energy coming? When are you doing the exploration? Oh, you need a couple of permits, huh? OK. But I call the head of Exxon, I say, ‘You know, I’d love [for you] to send me $25 million for the campaign.’ ‘Absolutely sir. Why didn’t you ask? Would you like some more?’” 

Exxon, one of hundreds of API members, responded to the president’s hypothetical suggestion of corruption and quid pro quo a few hours later. 

“We are aware of the President’s statement regarding a hypothetical call with our CEO…and just so we’re all clear, it never happened,” the company wrote.

Read API’s March 25 wish list for the Interior Department below.

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The known unknowns
If Donald Trump were to win re-election, how would he do it?

We think the president will lose. Here is how we could be wrongUnited StatesOct 24th 2020 edition

Oct 24th 2020


Around this time four years ago, on October 28th 2016, the then director of the fbi, James Comey, announced the discovery of new emails that might be pertinent to his investigation into Hillary Clinton. Her polling lead in mid-October had been almost as big as Joe Biden’s is now. Twelve days later she was giving a concession speech. Election day is closer than it was when Mr Comey made his intervention—quirks of the calendar mean this year’s falls on November 3rd rather than November 8th, which is when Donald Trump won four years ago. So Mr Trump is running out of time to catch up. Still, that recent precedent has Americans wondering what they might be overlooking this time.

Mr Biden holds a large polling lead: The Economist’s forecast accordingly gives him a comfortable 92% chance of victory. In the 8% of our simulations where the president wins the electoral college, Mr Trump’s route to victory is almost identical to the path he took in 2016. If he wins his adopted home state of Florida, holds states he won handily—including Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas—then Pennsylvania and either Michigan or Wisconsin, both of which he won last time, would put him over the top. Polls suggest that path is unlikely, but polls underestimated Mr Trump’s strength in battleground states four years ago.

Mr Biden’s lead has also been remarkably steady, rarely dipping below five or above ten points. But this election is taking place during a pandemic, which is already changing how people vote (see Lexington). With less than two weeks left before polls close in America, what are the contest’s biggest remaining uncertainties?

One is whether the Republican gains in voter registration in key states will matter. During the epidemic Republicans have been canvassing in person more than Democrats, many of whose traditional registration sites, universities and churches, have been closed or restricted in much of the country. In both Florida and Pennsylvania, Republicans have registered over 100,000 more voters than Democrats since March. The Republican advantage in Arizona since mid-August exceeds 30,000.

Normally, party registration and voting are not tightly correlated. Kentucky and West Virginia, for instance, both have more registered Democrats than Republicans, but are all but guaranteed to back Mr Trump. We calculated the relationship between changes in Democratic registration and vote share in Florida from 2004 to 2016 and found there wasn’t one.

One factor that caused forecasts to flop in 2016 was that undecided voters broke late for Mr Trump. Could that happen again? It could. Yet this year there appear to be far fewer undecided or third-party voters: just 6% in our Economist/YouGov poll, compared with 14% at this point in 2016. They seem likely to favour Mr Biden, because they are younger and less white than the average voter who has decided. And they do not seem well-disposed towards the president. Just 31% of undecided voters approve of the president.

A different kind of uncertainty concerns election day itself. Mr Trump has urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully”. Read one way, this exhortation is not alarming. Poll-watchers are a routine presence. Both parties are training and deploying thousands of them. Rules vary between states, but generally political parties or campaigns can appoint, register and train voters to watch for irregularities.

Watchers are not supposed to interact with voters, though. If they believe a voter is ineligible, they are supposed to tell a poll worker (challenged voters can still cast provisional ballots, which will be counted once the voter proves his eligibility), and challenges generally require a rational basis—not race or age, for instance.

But many read Mr Trump’s remark as a call for voter intimidation. During the first presidential debate he declined to denounce white supremacists, calling on the Proud Boys, a group with a history of violence, to “stand back and stand by”. Devin Burghart, who heads the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, says that armed groups in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have discussed going to polling places. “They show up in body armour with ar-15s,” warns Mr Burghart. “They felt emboldened by Trump’s calls during the first debate and will make sure they show up.”

Only about 40% of voters plan to cast ballots in person on election day, though, a record low. Amid all America’s early voting, there have been just two small kerfuffles at voting sites. A group of chanting Trump supporters in Virginia formed a line that voters had to walk round, and a woman claiming to be a poll-watcher for the Trump campaign tried to get into an election office (which is not a polling place). If this was a co-ordinated effort, it was rather pathetic. Moreover, election officials and police officers say they are prepared for the threat.

The last big uncertainty concerns the acceptance and counting of ballots. Many worry that posted ballots will be rejected at higher rates than in-person votes. Because Democrats appear likelier than Republicans to vote by mail this year—and because remedying a rejected postal ballot is harder than doing so in person—ballot rejections could disproportionately help Mr Trump.

Evidence of widespread rejections is thin so far (see Graphic Detail). In North Carolina, 1.3% of mailed ballots have been rejected, down from 2.6% in 2016—though in a high-turnout election, a single percentage point means hundreds of thousands of votes. Rejection rates are higher for African-Americans: this year black North Carolinians have cast 17% of postal ballots, but make up 42% of rejections.

As for counting, a poll taken in September showed that two-thirds of Americans do not expect to know the contest’s winner on election night—a sign that messages about delayed results have sunk in. But delays will not be evenly spread. Florida will probably have a result on November 3rd. But neither Wisconsin nor Pennsylvania will begin counting postal ballots before election day. And the Supreme Court has let stand a Pennsylvania law requiring postal ballots received up to three days after polls close to be counted. If, once again, it all comes down to fine margins in the Midwest, Americans may not know who their next president is for another month.■

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Read the best of our 2020 campaign coverage and explore our election forecasts, then sign up for Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter and podcast on American politics.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The known unknowns”Reuse this contentThe Trust Project

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