The Energy 202: Zinke suggests solar power may not best use of public land


Despite saying in speeches that he happens “to love the coal miners” but that wind power “kills all the birds,” the Trump administration’s official policy is ostensibly to pursue an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

Under such a policy, as it’s described, the government does not pick winners and losers in the marketplace. Private firms are free to develop the energy source they determine to be the most economical. The more sources of electricity and fuel there are domestically, the thinking goes, the less dependent the United States is on other nations to meet its energy needs.

Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it in a March television interview: “Producing energy domestically and reasonable regulation is far better than watching it being produced overseas with no regulation.”

All of which is why solar energy advocates were scratching their heads after a recent comment Zinke made in a speech during National Clean Energy Week were a poor use of publicly owned land.

In the comments, Zinke seemed suggested that utility-scale solar projects were a poor use of publicly owned land — and that solar companies should look away from Interior’s land and toward the roofs of homes and businesses for solar panel space instead.

“If I see solar cells out on land, that land is no longer useful for anything else but energy, but there’s a lot of roofs when you fly over,” Zinke said, according to Politico. “And I think the greatest opportunity, quite frankly, for the solar industry is look at all the roofs in America.”

Zinke then corrected himself. “People ask me, ‘am I a fossil fuel guy?’ ” he added. “I’m like, ‘no, I’m all the above.’ “

The Obama administration pushed to open public lands — traditionally thought of for oil, gas and coal development — to renewable energy, too. Interior under Obama approved 60 utility-scale renewable energy projects that totaled 15,500 megawatts of capacity. A majority — 36 — of those projects were solar. And days after Trump’s election, the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior office that manages public lands used in energy development, finalized rules for an auction program for solar project leases on federal lands.

Under Trump, Interior has approved one solar project. And Zinke has publicly criticized at least one Obama-era solar project — one that in addition to being build on public lands was partially financed through the Energy Department’s loan-guarantee program.

“If you’ve been outside of Las Vegas and looked at that solar field, it kind of looks like a scene from Mad Max,” Zinke said of the Ivanpah solar plant in Nevada during a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an influential Washington’s  business group.

“Is that the future of having these three or four 80-foot towers with reflector cells the size of garage doors where it makes this cone, this sphere of death, so as birds go through it they get zapped?” he asked.

Zinke, however, is out of line with public opinion: In 2017, nearly 2 in 3 Americans, or 65 percent, said priority should generally be given to developing alternative energy over fossil fuels, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Citing that and other polling data, Alex Daue, assistant director of the energy and climate campaign at the Wilderness Society, said Zinke is “clearly out of touch with the desires of the American people and the direction that the country should be headed when it comes to energy.”

What Zinke is doing: All energy production has some environmental drawbacks — renewables included. Indeed, an audit of the aforementioned Ivanpah project, which concentrates sunlight onto a tower over 600 feet tall, found that it killed an estimated 6,185 birds over a 12-month period. Environmental groups, like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, have opposed some Obama-era solar projects due to their effects on desert ecosystems.

But in his comments during Clean Energy Week, Zinke does not emphasize the environmental impact of fossil-fuel development in the same way as with utility-scale solar.

In talking about hydraulic fracturing in front of the National Petroleum Council, for example, he didn’t mention fracking-induced earthquakes or flammable water. Instead, according to the Associated Press, he said, inexplicably, that fracking is “proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us.”

Heather Swift, Interior’s press secretary had this to say: “The Secretary supports all of the above energy and the Department is in the process of processing solar projects as well as traditional energy projects. The Secretary said very clearly that he thinks there’s a great opportunity for rooftop solar. In fact, some DOI facilities, such as our parking facility in Sacramento, California, already utilize rooftop solar.”


Zinke, too: The Post’s Drew Harwell and Lisa Rein have added Zinke to the list of Cabinet secretary chartering flights. 

Where Zinke went: “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chartered a flight from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana this summer aboard a plane owned by oil-and-gas executives, internal documents show,” Harwell and Rein report. The flight cost taxpayers $12,375. Politico, which has been leading the charge the chartered-flight reporting, broke the story.

However, it’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who has racked up the priciest flight bill — and caught the ire of the president. “But the president is said to have grown particularly frustrated with Mr. Price over the past week, as Politico published a series of reports detailing the secretary’s spending,” the New York Times reported on Thursday. Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who cost taxpayers more than $58,000 in noncommercial flights himself, have yet to find themselves in that hot seat, it seems.

Though Price has a apologized and agreed to reimburse taxpayers for his seat on the chartered flights — at a tab of $52,000 — Politico revealed that Price took military jets for a multi-country trip overseas, including his wife — while other staffers flew commercial — for a cost of roughly a half-million dollars.

But the EPA head won’t have as easy a time with the Senate: Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee sent a letter to Pruitt calling for answers about “excessive spending” surrounding the nearly $25,000 privacy booth being installed in his office and his reported use of chartered planes.

“You have stated repeatedly that your goal is to return EPA to its ‘core mission,’ “Udall wrote. “However, I do think we can both agree that a fundamental part of any federal agency’s ‘core mission’ must be the proper and responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”

Read Udall’s full letter via his tweet below:


Importantly, a Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), echoed that concern in his own letter to Trump on Pruitt’s (along Price and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s) travel expenses. Grassley writes: “please detail what steps the administration has taken to ensure that cabinet secretaries use the most fiscally responsible travel in accordance with the public trust they hold and the spirit and letter of all laws, regulations, and policies that apply.”

But even more importantly for Pruitt, the senator heading the committee overseeing the EPA — Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — is not interested in kicking over any more rocks himself regarding private flights (at least for now).

“I hadn’t planned on that at this point,” the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works told The Energy 202 on Wednesday.

— “Troubling lack of transparency?” A report from Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog nonprofit, accuses the EPA of leaving off details of a dozen interviews with media organizations from Pruitt’s schedule. The schedule lists 52 media interviews, almost all without naming the media outlet. .


Up next at the EPA: The EPA is expected to unveil a plan to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan in the coming days, according to the New York Times — and come up with a replacement.

Creating a new set of emissions rules could spark a legal battle from environmental groups and burden an agency that isn’t fully staffed up. “It could also force the [Pruitt], who has rejected the scientific consensus that human emissions cause climate change, to implicitly acknowledge that greenhouse gases harm human health and that the E.P.A. has an obligation to regulate them,” the Times writes.

So why would Pruitt want to issue new climate rules?: In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had authority to regulate greenhouse gasses. Two years later, Obama’s EPA determined that such gasses posed a threat to human health — leading to the development of the Clean Power Plan.

The EPA chief is under pressure from some on the right to try to undo all that — but undoing a scientific finding that greenhouse gasses are dangerous could prove to be legally very difficult. Without coming up with a replacement, Pruitt would expose the EPA to (even more) lawsuits. Pruitt, who some suspect wants to run for the Senate in 2020, may be choosing an easier path here.


And at the Interior: The department is planning to reconsider Obama-era protections for the greater sage grouse — a bird known for an elaborate mating dance — that would include amending 98 habitat management plans for the bird across 10 states, the New York Times reports. The move follows the interior secretary’s call for a review of the sage grouse plans this year.

What to know: The upcoming sage grouse decision is just an opening salvo in many more to come from Republicans interested in reining in what they regard as an overgrown law. In the House, it’s coming in the form of amendments attached to a sportsmen bill called the SHARE Act.


— Republicans are coming forward to push Trump on relief for Puerto Rico: Let’s run what they’re doing:

  • After the Trump administration announced Thursday morning that it would temporarily lift the law that prohibits foreign ships from delivering foods in the domestic U.S., Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) criticized the move as “insufficient” and put forward a bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act. “While I welcome the Trump administration’s Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico, this short-term, 10-day exemption is insufficient to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria,” McCain said, per the Washington Examiner.
  • House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) pledged Thursday that FEMA would get a $6.7 billion boost by the end of the week.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is calling on Trump to put the Pentagon in charge of the relief efforts. Rubio said he was concerned the island does not have the ability to lead a recovery effort for 3 million Americans, the Miami Herald reported. “This is what they do,” Rubio said Thursday. “They’re the best responders to natural disasters on the planet. And we need to employ them.”

And what about Trump? On Friday morning, the president issued a pair of cryptic tweet about “[b]ig decisions” as to the cost of rebuilding:

— Even with Trump’s temporary waiver of the Jones Act, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports that “U.S. shipping executives and unions say the move won’t speed the delivery of relief to the island after the devastation of Hurricane Maria because there were already more than enough U.S. flag vessels to handle relief supplies.”

Thomas B. Crowley, the chief executive of a leading contractor working with FEMA, told Mufson the problem in Puerto Rico wasn’t getting deliveries to the island via shipping containers, but getting the goods to the people who need them on land.

“Would the relief effort be better or is it being hampered by the existence of the Jones Act?” he told The Post. “The answer to that question is clearly no. If there were a case where a foreign vessel had a role, we would support that.”

–Out of power, and now out of cash: Puerto Ricans are now facing long lines at the bank, reduced hours and limited use of ATMs, the Associated Press reports. “Of course I took out money before the hurricane, but it’s gone already,” Cruzita Mojica, an employee of the Puerto Rico Treasury Department in San Juan, told the AP. “We’re without gasoline. Without money. Without food. This is a disaster.”

–And still without service: A much as 91 percent of Puerto Rico’s cell service sites are out of commission, with another 66 percent down on the U.S. Virgin Islands, reports The Post’s Brian Fung.

— Better response to Haitian earthquake:  “In 2010, after an earthquake shook Haiti’s capital, the United States military “mobilized as if it were going to war,” write The Post’s Aaron C. Davis, Dan Lamothe and Ed O’Keefe. “That effort stands in contrast with the rate of response to the crisis in Puerto Rico. Two days after the Haiti quake, the Pentagon had 8,000 troops on the way. Eight days after Maria, just 4,400 service members were assisting federal operations in Puerto Rico, our colleagues write. And some leaders, including those who led the relief effort in Haiti, are “dismayed by the relative lack of urgency and military muscle in the initial federal response to Puerto Rico’ catastrophe.”

— Worth a read: The Post’s Anthony Faiola describes battered St. John: “Once a lush gem in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a chain steeped in the lore of pirates and killer storms, this 20-square-mile island is now perhaps the site of Irma’s worst devastation on American soil.”

— Worth a read part II: And from the New York Times, another dispatch from the Virgin Islands: “The one-two punch of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria 14 days later was especially cruel. In many places across the three major islands of this American territory, the second storm drowned what the first couldn’t destroy, ravaging what was once one of the Caribbean’s most idyllic landscapes.”

–Worth a read part III: From the Wall Street Journal: “After Hurricane Maria hit a week ago, residents on the small island of Vieques off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico were so cut off that the only way they could reliably contact the main island was through a ham radio a resident rigged up on his own.”


Why is Puerto Rico still dark? Just take a look at the finances of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, writes HuffPost’s Alexander C. Kaufman, who has a good rundown of the situation. PREPA, as its called, had already racked up $9 billion in debt and was accused in a 2015 lawsuit of taking kickbacks from oil suppliers including Brazil’s Petrobras and Royal Dutch Shell. Unlike Hawaii, which is weaning itself off fossil fuels expensive to ship from the mainland, 47 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity is generated through petroleum.

The result, even before the hurricanes: “Puerto Rico suffers four to five times more blackouts than an average U.S. state,” HuffPost writes.

Introducing the new Chevron CEO: Chevron vice chairman Mike Wirth has been tapped to succeed John Watson as the chief executive of the company. Wirth has been vice chairman since February, Bloomberg News reports, and his new post is effective February 1. Wirth brings more than three decades of expertise in refining, chemicals, fuel sales and pipeline management, Bloomberg reports, and has spent his entire career with the oil company.


A surprising study: New research has found that forests in the planet’s tropical midsection are releasing hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere as opposed to storing it in the trunks of the trees.

The study suggests that the forests are “another net addition to the climate change problem,” writes The Post’s Chris Mooney. And there’s a flip side: “If the current losses could be reversed, the forests could also rapidly transform into a powerful climate change solution,” he adds.

“The losses due to deforestation and degradation are actually emitting more CO2 to the atmosphere, compared with how much the existing forest is able to absorb,” Alessandro Baccini, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Woods Hole Research Center told Mooney.

A good long-read for the weekend: But be forewarned, it’s not a pick-me-up.

The military, one of the largest polluters in the country, often uses contractors to outsource the cleaning of land and restoring of waste. But a report this week from ProPublica outlines a lack of oversight in how much environmental damage results from that work.

In taking on environmental cleanup jobs, contractors often bring needed expertise to technical tasks the Pentagon isn’t equipped to do itself. They also absorb much of the legal responsibility for disposing of military-made hazards, in some cases helping the Pentagon — at least on paper — winnow down its list of toxic liabilities. But in outsourcing this work, the military has often struggled to provide adequate oversight to ensure that work is done competently — or is completed at all. Today, records show, some of the most dangerous cleanup work that has been entrusted to contractors remains unfinished, or worse, has been falsely pronounced complete, leaving people who live near former military sites to assume these areas are now safe.


Coming Up


President Trump lifts the Jones Act to help Puerto Rico. What is it?

Drone video shows devastated San Juan a week after Maria:

Does Trump’s Cabinet have a private plane problem?

White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said the Army Corps of Engineers will help restore power in Puerto Rico:

Watch Rep. Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) emotional return to the House floor:

Trevor Noah says it’s time to pay back Puerto Rico: 

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