Tag: administration

The Energy 202: Trump administration dinged by government watchdog for pandemic relief for oil companies

That royalty relief was supposed to go to wells that would have otherwise shut down because of the sharp decline in oil prices. The idea was to make sure that normally profitable wells were not plugged permanently because of the health crisis. 

But the GAO, in a report released Tuesday, said the Trump administration failed to properly take the economic viability of wells into account when deciding which wells got relief — and probably ended up offering aid to oil producers that did not need it, shortchanging taxpayers in the process.

“This is exactly the time the government should be spending money,” said Frank Rusco, the watchdog agency’s director of natural resources and environment. “But we’re about good government. And if you do it, do it in a smart way.”

When oil prices plummeted this spring, the Trump administration offered a 60-day reprieve on royalty payments in more than 500 cases in Western states.

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees drilling on federally controlled lands, reduced rates from the agency’s usual minimum of 12.5 percent to an average of less than 1 percent between March 24 and June 11.  

Offering a break on royalty payments is not unusual, especially during economically challenging times. When deciding which wells got relief, officials on the ground in BLM’s state offices told the GAO they considered certain factors, such as transportation and refining costs, that may weigh heavily on low-margin producers during a price crash.

But the agency failed to analyze whether royalty relief was needed in the first place to keep wells operating during the pandemic, according to the GAO — and, in turn, to ensure “the government gets a fair return” for taxpayers on its oil and gas. 

Whether an application for royalty relief was approved varied wildly state by state, in part because local BLM officials interpreted guidance from headquarters differently, the GAO said. 

The majority of wells granted a break on payments were in Wyoming, with wells in Utah, Colorado and other places also getting some relief. But the approval rate in Wyoming was just 28 percent, while in BLM office covering Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota it was 95 percent.

The total cost to taxpayers was $4.5 million in forgone revenue in May and June — though the GAO said that estimate is “conservative.” The watchdog agency recommended the BLM evaluate the effectiveness of the relief program and update its guidance for it.

The Trump administration denounced the watchdog agency for not working with it “in good faith.”

Derrick Henry, a BLM spokesman, defended the agency’s royalty relief program, saying it was legal and has been done under other presidents.

“No special circumstances were granted to anyone,” he said, adding that relief was granted only “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.” 

Although the watchdog agency did talk to local BLM staffers, it was not granted interviews with

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Trump administration to allow undocumented teens in government custody to get abortions

The Trump administration’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) on Tuesday changed its policy banning pregnant undocumented teenagers in federal custody from obtaining abortions, marking an end to a three-year legal battle. 

The ORR, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that oversees undocumented minors and others in federal immigration custody, now directs that pregnant teenagers in its custody must be allowed access to an abortion.  

In 2017, the Trump administration effectively adopted a policy that prevented undocumented pregnant teenagers in federal custody from seeking abortions, even during the earlier months of their pregnancies. A series of court rulings against the administration’s policy has forced them to reverse this practice. 

On Tuesday, the Trump administration filed papers in a lawsuit filed against it notifying the court that it would reverse the policy on abortions and pay $336,710 to the American Civil Liberties Union to cover its legal fees in the case.

“After three years of battling in court alongside brave young women, we are relieved that the government finally abandoned its attempts to block young people in its custody from accessing abortion,” Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement. “Today’s policy change rights one of the wrongs this administration has committed against immigrants in detention, but their health and safety are still very much at stake. 

“To protect reproductive freedom for all, we still have a fight ahead of us — including ensuring that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land.”

The ACLU lawsuit was on behalf of a then-17-year-old Central American immigrant who was being held in a federally funded shelter in South Texas. She was 15 weeks pregnant when a judge ruled that she could have an abortion before the 20-week limit in Texas law, but that ruling applied to her only. 

“After three years of waiting, I am so glad to know that what happened to me will never happen to anyone else,” she said in a statement via the ACLU. 

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Court: Trump administration policing panel broke transparency law

What it means: Given that one of the judge’s explicit requirements is that the membership of the panel be revamped, his ruling Thursday may well postpone the panel’s report until after the November election.

The background: Much of Bates’ 45-page ruling focuses on a requirement in the 1972 transparency law that federal advisory committees be “fairly balanced” in their make-up. The George W. Bush appointee said a commission consisting entirely of law enforcement could not meet that standard.

“The Court is hard pressed to think of a starker example of non-compliance with FACA’s fair balance requirement than a commission charged with examining broad issues of policing in today’s America that is composed entirely of past and present law enforcement officials,” wrote Bates, ruling on a lawsuit filed in April by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF).

“The Commission includes no members from civil rights groups like LDF. Nor does it include any criminal defense attorney, academic, civic leader, or representative of a community organization or social service organization. Instead, all eighteen Commissioners are current or former law enforcement,” Bates added. “This is precisely the type of imbalance that FACA sought to prevent.”

Bates noted that one appeals court, the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit, has held that the “fair balance” requirement in FACA to too vague for courts to enforce. But he said the weight of legal precedent comes down in favor of the provision being susceptible to enforcement by judges, especially in egregious cases.

Bates rejected the Justice Department’s arguments that the panel was exempt from the transparency statute under an exemption created in 1995 for committees dealing solely with issues of joint responsibility between the federal government and state, local or tribal governments. He said that defining that exemption as broadly as the Justice Department suggested would have “no limiting principle” and would essentially gut the law.

Many of the panel’s meetings have been held publicly by teleconference since the coronavirus pandemic began to spread earlier this year. The Justice Department’s website lists 14 hearing sessions and provides a transcript and audio recording for most of them.

However, the judge’s ruling says the department conceded that the meetings would be considered closed if the transparency statute applied. The sessions were also not announced in advance in the Federal Register, as the law requires, Bates said.

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Trump administration policing panel broke transparency law

What happened: A blue-ribbon law enforcement panel created at the direction of President Donald Trump broke a federal open meeting law and must halt its work until it comes into compliance with the statute, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge John Bates said the administration violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act by placing only current and former law-enforcement personnel on the 18-member commission and by holding closed meetings without advance public notice.

The commission’s final report was set to go to Attorney General William Barr later this month, but Bates said no recommendations can be submitted until the panel remedies the legal violations.

What it means: Given that one of the judge’s explicit requirements is that the membership of the panel be revamped, his ruling Thursday may well postpone the panel’s report until after the November election.

The background: Much of Bates’ 45-page ruling focuses on a requirement in the 1972 transparency law that federal advisory committees be “fairly balanced” in their make-up. The George W. Bush appointee said a commission consisting entirely of law enforcement could not meet that standard.

“The Court is hard pressed to think of a starker example of non-compliance with FACA’s fair balance requirement than a commission charged with examining broad issues of policing in today’s America that is composed entirely of past and present law enforcement officials,” wrote Bates, ruling on a lawsuit filed in April by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF).

“The Commission includes no members from civil rights groups like LDF. Nor does it include any criminal defense attorney, academic, civic leader, or representative of a community organization or social service organization. Instead, all eighteen Commissioners are current or former law enforcement,” Bates added. “This is precisely the type of imbalance that FACA sought to prevent.”

Bates noted that one appeals court, the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit, has held that the “fair balance” requirement in FACA to too vague for courts to enforce. But he said the weight of legal precedent comes down in favor of the provision being susceptible to enforcement by judges, especially in egregious cases.

Bates rejected the Justice Department’s arguments that the panel was exempt from the transparency statute under an exemption created in 1995 for committees dealing solely with issues of joint responsibility between the federal government and state, local or tribal governments. He said that defining that exemption as broadly as the Justice Department suggested would have “no limiting principle” and would essentially gut the law.

Many of the panel’s meetings have been held publicly by teleconference since the coronavirus pandemic began to spread earlier this year. The Justice Department’s website lists 14 hearing sessions and provides a transcript and audio recording for most of them.

However, the judge’s ruling says the department conceded that the meetings would be considered closed if the transparency statute applied. The sessions were also not announced in advance in the Federal Register, as the law requires, Bates said.

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