Jan 7, 2020

Analysis | The Energy 202: Federal lands chief makes mark on agency — even though his position is not permanent

By Dino Grandoni


U.S. Bureau of Land Management Acting Director William "Perry" Pendley. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)
The acting head of the Bureau of Land Management is making his mark on the agency: He's naming the agency's new headquarters after his co-worker during the Ronald Reagan administration. 
William Perry Pendley, who was just reappointed as President Trump's acting director of the federal lands agency in the new year, has named BLM’s new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., after Robert Burford, a Grand Junction rancher who served as the agency's director for eight years under Reagan.
The moniker is another sign of how Pendley is reshaping the agency by shifting the gravity of decisionmaking away from Washington and towards the West — even though he has not been confirmed by the Senate.
After nearly three years in office, President Trump has yet to nominate a permanent director for the BLM, despite the agency’s tremendous purview of managing 245 million acres of public lands. Last week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt extended Pendley's tenure as acting head of the BLM until April.
When asked about Pendley in an interview Monday, Bernhardt said the extension was “not only lawful, it's completely consistent with an approach that this department is used” in the past for vacant positions. He also noted he had gotten the Senate to confirm two officials for high-level jobs in his department — the inspector general and assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks — after those posts had been unfilled for years.
Yet the lack of a permanent leader hasn’t slowed down the Trump administration in its ambitious effort to reorganize the agency. Pendley, who was first appointed in July by Bernhardt, is helping send the vast majority of BLM’s Washington-based positions west of the Rockies by the end of the year to bring government workers closer to the land they help manage.
Late last week, Pendley traveled to Grand Junction as BLM opened its new headquarters in the city of 63,000 as part of the reorganization plan. In addition to naming the office, he has made tentative offers to three people to be assistant directors in Grand Junction, though the Office of Personnel Management still needs to approve the hirings.
Pendley and Burford, who died in 1993, became friends while working together at the Interior Department. Under Reagan, Pendley served as a deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals.
“I always admired his work ethic and his commitment to President Reagan ... I thought it totally appropriate that we name our headquarters after him and honor him that way,” Pendley told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
Both rode into Washington in the 1980s has part of a Western political movement known as the “sagebrush rebellion,” which called for the transfer of federal lands to the states. Conservationists — both then and now — said ceding that control would open the way for gazers, miners and other business interests to exploit land owned by the American public.
Burford ran the bureau under Interior Secretary James Watt, one of Reagan’s most controversial Cabinet officials, who faced a barrage of criticism for his pro-development stances and racially offensive remarks before resigning in 1983. And Burford was married to yet another controversial Reagan Cabinet member: former Environmental Protection Agency chief Anne Gorsuch Burford, whose short tenure was marked by a scandal over the mismanagement of the Superfund cleanup program.
Given his own pro-industry stances, Burford was charged by conservationists with turning the BLM into the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining” at the expense of recreation and wildlife enthusiasts. But unlike his wife and his boss, Burford kept his job for Reagan's entire presidency. 
Today it is Pendley who has his own chorus of environmental detractors. 
Last week, a coalition of 91 environmental and other advocacy groups called for Pendley's removal from office for holding “views that are antithetical to the BLM’s mission to manage public lands and resources on behalf of all Americans,” they wrote in a letter to Bernhardt.
Despite his position atop a federal government's main agency for managing federal lands, Pendley has suggested the federal government shouldn't have any.
“The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” he wrote as recently as 2016 in a National Review magazine article.
Bernhardt, Pendley's boss, suggested in the interview Monday that Trump may eventually send an official BLM nominee to the Senate for confirmation.
“We are going through a process,” Bernhardt said. “When the president nominates somebody for BLM, we'll expect that they'll get confirmed. And I believe that these jobs should be filled with people who are confirmed.”
But he added of Pendley: “I think he's doing a great job.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this story.


Heavy-duty trucks that burn diesel fuel emit nitrogen oxide, a pollutant linked to lung and heart disease. (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)

— EPA to pursue rule that would reduce truck pollution: In an uncharacteristic move, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it will propose a rule to tighten restrictions on pollution from heavy-duty trucks, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. The Trump administration, known for its regulatory rollbacks, said it would move forward with its “Cleaner Trucks Initiative” that targets curbing emissions from heavy-duty engines.
  • Why it matters: “Heavy-duty vehicles are the largest mobile source of nitrogen oxide, a pollutant linked to heart and lung disease. They also tend to remain in service far longer than other vehicles.”
  • What the EPA says: “Through this initiative, we will modernize heavy-duty truck engines, improving their efficiency and reducing their emissions, which will lead to a healthier environment,” EPA chief Andrew Wheeler said at an announcement in Virginia.
  • Here's the rub: Some environmental advocates worry the proposal could preempt even stricter state rules. California, for one, has started to develop its own tougher nitrogen oxide standards. “While the EPA and California ultimately could harmonize their new rules, the possibility also exists that the federal proposal could undermine the more stringent standards proposed by California,” Dennis adds.

A coal-fired power plant in Glenrock, Wyo. (J. David Ake/AP)

— Greenhouse gas emissions dropped last year: There was a slight 2.1 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2019, aided mostly by a record drop in emissions from coal, according to a report from private data research firm Rhodium Group. Coal-fired power generation decreased by 18 percent last year, The Post’s Steven Mufson writes, but the drop was largely offset by an increase in emissions from natural gas. Emissions from buildings and other sectors of the economy also increased and emissions from transportation remained relatively level.
  • A drop is a drop, but there's still not great news for curbing climate change: "In 2019, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were roughly 12 percent below 2005 levels. That puts the United States at risk of missing the 17 percent target it agreed to reach by 2020 under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, the Rhodium study said."
  • So what is needed? "To meet goals for lower levels of climate pollution in the future, the United States would have to make broad, sharp reductions in part because further cuts in coal use, which fell by half over the past decade, will be more difficult."
— Coal plant closures saving lives, study says: A new report published in the journal Nature Sustainability found more than 26,000 lives were saved in the United States between 2005 and 2016 because of the closure of coal-fired facilities. The decommissioning of units led to decreased nearby pollution concentrations, and “subsequent reductions in mortality and increases in crop yield,” according to the University of California at San Diego study.
  • By the numbers: “The coal sector has struggled in recent years, with 334 generating units taken offline during the period analyzed in the study. A cheap glut of natural gas has displaced coal, with 612 gas-fired units coming online during this time,” the Guardian writes.
— Another coal plant to shutter soon: The last coal-fired power plant in New York could stop operations as soon as March 12, according to a recent notice to the New York Independent System Operator. The owner of the plant, Somerset Operating Co. LLC, previously suggested that Feb. 15 would be the earliest possible shutdown date, E&E News reports. “New York ISO still needs to complete a study to determine whether the Somerset plant is needed for reliability. A spokesman for the grid operator confirmed receipt of Somerset's deactivation notice and said the organization has until March 11 to complete the ‘Generator Deactivation Assessment.’ ”

A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)

California had its mildest fire season in eight years: Wildfires across the state burned 270,000 acres in 2019, the lowest since 2011. The mild season suggests in part that preemptive power shut-offs by the state's utilities lowered the chances of human-caused fire ignitions, which spark California’s worst wildfires, the Los Angeles Times reports.
  • Why it matters: “The shutdowns “underscore the huge — and often overlooked — role that human-related ignitions play in California wildfire. It doesn’t matter how dry the vegetation, how fierce the winds or how high the temperature; if there is no ignition, there is no wildfire,” the Times writes. “…Of the known causes of the state’s 20 most destructive wildfires, all are human-related. Half were started by power line or electrical problems, including the two most devastating, the Camp fire… and the 2017 Tubbs fire.”
— The Australian fires are generating explosive, towering clouds: The most fearsome of these apocalyptic clouds is known as pyrocumulonimbus, which are fire-generated thunderstorms, The Post’s Andrew Freedman and Matthew Cappucci write. The presence of these clouds, pyroCb for short, signal extreme fire behavior.
  • Here’s what’s happening: “The Australian bush fires have been so intense that they’ve lofted smoke particles all the way into the stratosphere, in part through these clouds that in some cases look more like explosions. Once in the stratosphere, which is the layer of the atmosphere above where most weather occurs, in the troposphere, these particles can travel thousands of miles and even influence regional and global climate.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Concord, N.H. (Cheryl Senter/AP)
— Sunrise Movement balks at Warren’s support for Trump’s trade deal: The influential youth climate group is criticizing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) move to support the deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, HuffPost reports. After disparaging an earlier version of the deal, Warren said she would vote for the latest version of the agreement. Sunrise opposes the deal on the grounds that it constitutes a "huge win" for multinational fossil-fuel companies.

Fema search and rescue team leader uses a SatPhone to communicate with his base in the town of Morovis, Puerto Rico. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post)
— Former Trump FEMA pick resigns: Jeffrey Byard, a top official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, resigned in December. His nomination to lead FEMA had been derailed months earlier, NBC News reports. Trump tapped Byard to helm the agency in February, but his nomination was pulled in September after it was delayed by an investigation by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The logo for Chevron on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (Richard Drew/AP)

— Chevron removes workers from Iraqi Kurdistan: The California-based oil giant is the latest company to pull some of its staff working in northern Iraq. Chevron pulled expatriates working in oil fields in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, which a company spokesperson called a “precautionary measure,” The Post’s Will Englund writes. “The California-based oil giant shut down drilling in the region in 2015 because of the threat posed by Islamic State fighters at the time. Drilling resumed in 2017,” he adds. “For now, in contrast, work is continuing in the Kurdish fields with all-local workers. The company characterized the decision to withdraw foreign workers as ‘not a huge evacuation,’ but it would not provide details on the numbers of people involved.”


  • The National Council for Science and the Environment’s annual conference continues.
  • S&P Global Platts 18th Annual Gas Storage Outlook conference begins.
Coming Up
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on “The Nonpoint Source Management Program Under the Clean Water Act: Perspectives from States” on Wednesday.
  • The House Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on proposals for a Water Resources Development Act of 2020 on Thursday.


— An unlikely pair: “There are love stories, and then there is the love story of Suzie and Kirby,” writes Post columnist Theresa Vargas. “Theirs is a rare pairing, one that both defies nature and resulted from it. The two are species of parrots that don’t normally mate. Kirby is a harlequin macaw, and Suzie is a military macaw…. They are also parents. About a year ago, their firstborn hatched, leaving the aviary with a unique quandary: What do you call a species that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else?”

Suzie, left, a military macaw, and Kirby, a harlequin macaw, groom each other at TC Feathers Aviary in Chantilly, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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