While America is focused on the very public and critical war of survival against the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Trump administration, some Republicans, and fossil-fuel companies are continuing to wage another war against the environment and renewable energy. Quietly, and occasionally wrapped in patriotism, it’s a concerted effort and a continuation of the president’s big-business world view and so-called “Energy Dominance.” This anti-environment war is being waged, at least in part, by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Commerce Department, the Department of the Interior (and its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Land Management), as well as allies such as Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of Continental Petroleum. Only a handful of Democratic members of Congress and environmentalists have publicly attempted to combat it.
On the Senate floor on Saturday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky warned Democrats against bringing up any issues other than immediate ones dealing directly with the pandemic. “That is exactly, exactly the wrong approach right now. That is the kind of thinking that could bog down these urgent discussions…This is a national emergency.”
As the president waits to sign the unprecedented $2.0 trillion H.R. 748 (the Obama era 2009 Wall Street recovery package was $831 million) coronavirus stimulus bill, it has triggered a virtual feeding frenzy by lobbyists at this giant trough of cash. Despite the coronavirus and social-distancing, in a frenzy of phone calls, Zoom video conferences, emails and texts, lobbyists are scrambling to grab a piece of this huge American money pie.
This mad scramble began with the American oil industry.
On March 13, President Trump announced that the United States would purchase American oil to fill to capacity America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Roughly $2.3 billion of crude oil from American companies was to be delivered to the country’s reserve tanks located near the Gulf of Mexico. On March 19, the Department of Energy began initial solicitation. The DOE statement opened with:
“WASHINGTON, D.C. – At the direction of the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, the Department of Energy (DOE) will fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to its maximum capacity by purchasing 77 million barrels of American-made crude oil. Today, DOE announced a solicitation for the purchase of an initial 30 million barrels to begin filling the SPR. Solicitations for additional purchases will follow.
“‘DOE is moving quickly to support U.S. oil producers facing potentially catastrophic losses from the impacts of COVID-19 and the intentional disruption to world oil markets by foreign actors,’ said U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette.
“Under this initial solicitation, DOE will purchase up to 30 million barrels of sweet and sour crude oil with a focus on small to midsize U.S. oil producers.”
Funding for the purchase was originally included in the coronavirus bailout as part of $400 billion allocated for fossil-fuel and other industries. After Democratic pushback, however, the SPR purchase didn’t make the final version. On Thursday, the Department of Energy withdrew its solicitation for bids.
But Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the advocacy Group Public Citizen, tells TYT the withdrawal may be temporary.
“DOE could attempt to fill the Reserve using 1950 Defense Production Act authorities," Slocum said. "There will likely be additional legislative responses when the Senate returns April 20 that may include appropriations to buy oil for the SPR.”
These still-possible purchases were partly intended to rescue shale oil producers who were already on shaky ground before Russia increased oil production in its global chess game against rival producers. To protect its market share, Saudi Arabia countered by increasing oil production to a record 12 million barrels per day. The world’s excess supply drove oil prices down to below $30 a barrel, roughly half of what it was just four years ago. The present pandemic and economic slowdown have dropped the price of standard WTI Crude oil to $22 a barrel: Good for consumers, bad for oil companies. Small and mid-sized shale oil companies need oil prices above around $60 a barrel to profitably extract oil from shale rock. And extraction usually means fracking — a process that contributes to climate change and damages the environment — pumping large amounts of water (with toxic chemicals) into oil deposits to force out both oil and gas. Fracking turned the United States into an oil exporter (as proudly noted by Trump), but at the expense of the environment: Air and water pollution, and increased minor earthquakes.
On March 17, twenty Democratic members of Congress wrote to Trump, expressing, “grave concerns” that he was considering a bailout of the oil and gas industry. Their letter concluded, “The COVID 19 crisis shows that we must make critical investments in our public health infrastructure and provide support for those who need it most. Using this public health crisis as an excuse for another giveaway to the fossil fuel industry is badly misguided. It would only worsen the climate crisis. America must respond to the threat of climate change by pursuing a clean energy future with bold solutions that ensure a fair and just transition for affected workers in the communities. A corporate bailout for oil and gas industry is not the answer to either crisis.”
The lead signatory was Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-CA). Her press officer, Ron Ekstein, told The Young Turks in a phone interview, “All you have to do is look at who his donors are, and [see] who has the most impact on him.”
Harold Hamm is the billionaire founder of Continental Resources Inc., an oil company out of Oklahoma. Federal Election Commission records indicate he has donated more than $50,000 to Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign and political action committee, and nearly $100,000 to various Republican politicians and the Republican National Committee in this cycle. Hamm has publicly admitted seeking the Trump administration’s help for oil companies. When asked how soon-to-be-unemployed American workers would feel about a bailout for oil and gas companies, Hamm told CNBC, “We’re not asking for a hand-out. Nobody is… We’ve delivered something here that was unheard of. That is bringing up production… this natural energy renaissance has been tremendous for the American people who are going to have low prices, you know, for the foreseeable future.”
On the same CNBC program, Hamm was split-screened with Inhofe, also of Oklahoma. Inhofe has been a long-time advocate for the oil and gas industry and opponent of environmental programs. In 2017, Inhofe boasted to a Heritage Foundation audience that because the Trump administration reversed 66 Obama-era oil drilling regulations, they had “won.”
Inhofe, chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee and a recipient of Hamm donations, wants the Commerce Department to investigate the Russian and Saudi Arabian oil price manipulations and apply tariffs on foreign oil. He said, “I don't want to get us in a position where we're dependent upon importing oil for our ability to defend America, to fight a war, to run our economy… a lot of jobs are dependent upon our ability to be able to produce [oil] domestically, and that’s very consistent to the things we’re voting on right now as we speak.”
(TYT sought but did not receive comment from Inhofe and other members of Congress, as well as Continental Resources, and government offices including the White House.)
On Tuesday, Thanu Yakupitiyage, spokeswoman for the international environmental organization 350.org, told TYT in an email:
“…We’re pushing back hard on a stimulus bill that bails out corporations over people. Every dime that goes to bail out oil and gas companies should be redistributed towards going to make virus test kits, ventilators, and masks; towards increasing hospital capacity; and towards supporting our most vulnerable communities, industry workers, and at-risk individuals.
“What Congress invests in now through bailouts, subsidies, loan forgiveness, and health care coverage will determine an individual's recovery. Bailing out Big Oil is a giant step backward toward a society governed by those that refuse to listen to science. We need to be supporting our communities, making sure all our basic needs are being met and investing in a just transition toward a new economy that puts people and the planet first.
“Big Oil companies will use their ‘stimulus package’ from taxpayers to drill for oil, build more destructive pipelines, and worsen the climate crisis. It does nothing for communities facing the first hand impacts of the pandemic.”
Also scrambling for taxpayer money, the airline industry is seeking a whopping $50 billion in aid. This is the industry that contributes an estimated 2.5% of the world’s planet-warming CO2 pollution. Yet, as with other industries, there is no discussion by the Trump administration during this pandemic of transitioning to more efficient airplanes, developing electric airplanes or investing in less-polluting transportation like trains.
Another major polluter, the cruise line industry, reportedly sought $50 billion in aid, in the form of loans. On March 18, eight senators wrote to congressional leaders urging that taxpayer monies to the airline and cruise industries be accompanied by environmental reforms.
“Given the large carbon footprint of commercial aviation, requiring reductions in carbon emissions would represent a major step in curbing our nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Requiring reductions in carbon pollution from flag cruise ships as well as reductions in other air pollutants and increased penalties for illegal dumping will result in cleaner air and a healthier ocean. If we give the airline and cruise industries assistance without requiring them to be better environmental stewards, we would miss a major opportunity to combat climate change and ocean dumping… Business leaders are themselves increasingly recognizing that their companies must make positive contributions to society or risk losing their social license. This is particularly true when companies ask American taxpayers for financial assistance.”
The coronavirus bill is expected to pass the House and get signed into law as early as this week. While industry is jockeying for taxpayer money to survive, and America’s attention is understandably focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration is not only writing checks, it’s also rolling back rules to favor business interests at the expense of the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency last week initiated a 30-day prospective on its Scientific Transparency Rule, which would limit the use of science in regulatory decisions. It is also rushing to complete its Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles rule, which, contrary to what its name implies, would lower vehicle emissions standards.
The Department of Interior, through its U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is closing comment on ending the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, which allowed prosecution of oil and gas companies for killing birds during operations. Without prosecution, the fear is that millions of birds could be killed. The department is also pushing to scrap clean-water and energy-efficient light bulb regulations. Its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is continuing fossil-fuel leasing, offering 78 million acres along the Gulf of Mexico. Four-hundred-thousand acres went for $93 million, half what it went for in the last sale.
And in the next two weeks, the Bureau of Land Management will auction off oil and gas leases on federal lands in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nevada. The auctions come at a time when the country is focused on a pandemic and oil prices are at the lowest in a decade, meaning big companies may pick up bargains against slim competition.
The stated belief among some environmental groups is that the Trump administration is attempting to make as many regulatory changes as possible in case the president loses in November.
On Thursday, though, after the Senate passed the CoronaVirus stimulus package, 350.org declared a partial victory.
“Although there is still a $500 billion fund for corporations to use, the provisions for direct bail outs for Big Oil were eliminated," the group said in a statement. North America Director Tamara Toles O’Laughlin said:
“Congress has taken a step in the right direction by prioritizing people over corporations in this relief package. With the help of our supporters, we successfully removed $3 billion in direct handouts to Big Oil. We still reject the corporate bailout fund as a power grab and dirty money transfer. Over the last few days, 350.org supporters made their voices heard by calling Congress and signing more than 12,770 petitions, to demand the people-centered relief we deserve. We thank our champions in Congress for these initial protections that prioritize health and economic relief to those most impacted by the pandemic and its cumulative effects on our communities.
“While we applaud this first step, there is still much more that Congress can do in the long term to uplift people and the planet. Along with immediate relief, we need a long-term, climate-resilient recovery plan that charts a bold path forward to a livable future for all. There is no going back to ‘business-as-usual’ after this pandemic.”
Environmentalists are not in complete agreement on how to approach this pandemic. Respected climate economist and Professor at New York University, Gernot Wagner, responded to TYT’s question about shale oil bailouts and climate change, noting:
“In short, bailing out US shale oil producers is bad for the climate, much like bailing out the airlines or any other high-carbon industry — without any conditions — is bad for the climate.
“That said, right about now, I couldn't care less about what Covid-19 means for CO2 emissions. I care about CO2 emissions because I care about people, and people are dying right now. Let's focus on that. Sure, let's avoid making things worse on climate while we're at it. But let's not forget to focus on what's truly important.”
With no climate-change provisions in the coronavirus stimulus bill, and federal agencies actively pursuing anti-enviroment agendas, it seems obvious that the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans have no intention of using taxpayer monies to combat climate change, or restore the balance of nature. A balance clearly out of whack as we hunker down with our families, afraid to come near other humans, avoiding a virus in what might be a movie about a zombie apocalypse. Except, in this script, we are trying to save the infected zombies just as some of us are trying to save the Earth for our children and grandchildren.
TYT Investigative Reporter Ti-Hua Chang is an award-winning journalist who has worked for CBS News and other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @TiHuaChang.