Political Notebook

Biden halts oil, gas leases amid legal fight on climate cost

The Justice Department is pausing new federal oil and gas leases and permits after a judge blocked the government from weighing the cost of climate damage in decisions. CHRIS CARMICHAEL/NYT

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is delaying decisions on new oil and gas drilling on federal land and other energy-related actions after a federal court blocked the way officials were calculating the real-world costs of climate change.

The administration said in a legal filing that a Feb. 11 ruling by a Louisiana federal judge will affect dozens of rules by at least four federal agencies. Among the immediate effects is an indefinite delay in planned oil and gas lease sales on public lands in a half-dozen states in the West.

The ruling also will delay plans to restrict methane waste emissions from natural gas drilling on public lands and a court-ordered plan to develop energy conservation standards for manufactured housing, the administration said. The ruling also will delay a $2.3 billion federal grant program for transit projects, officials said.

A brief filed by the Justice Department late Saturday “confirmed that certain activities associated with (the administration’s) fossil fuel leasing and permitting programs are impacted by the February 11, 2022, injunction,’’ the Interior Department said in a statement.

Interior continues to move forward with reforms to oil and gas programs onshore and offshore and “is committed to ensuring its programs account for climate impacts,’’ said spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz.

The delays follow a ruling by US District Judge James Cain of the Western District of Louisiana, who blocked federal agencies from using an estimate known as the “social cost of carbon” to assess pollution from carbon emissions by energy production and other industrial sources. The decision blocked the Biden administration from using a higher estimate for the damage that each additional ton of greenhouse gas pollution causes society.

President Biden on his first day in office restored the climate cost estimate to about $51 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions, after President Donald Trump had reduced the figure to $7 or less per ton. Trump’s estimate included only damages felt in the United States versus the global harm previously used by President Barack Obama.

The damage figure uses economic models to capture impacts from rising sea levels, recurring droughts, and other consequences of climate change and helps shape rules for oil and gas drilling, automobiles, and other industries. Using a higher cost estimate would help justify reductions in planet-warming emissions by making the benefits more likely to outweigh the expenses of complying with new rules.

“The cumulative burden of the preliminary injunction is quite significant,” wrote Dominic Mancini, deputy administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The ruling by Cain, a Trump appointee, came after 10 Republican attorneys general sued over Biden’s executive order, arguing that Biden lacked authority to raise the climate-cost estimate under the Constitution, which gives that power solely to Congress. Cain agreed, writing that use of the climate damage figure in oil and gas lease reviews would “artificially increase the cost estimates of lease sales” and cause direct harm to energy-producing states.

The Justice Department has requested a stay of Cain’s ruling.

Economist Michael Greenstone, who helped establish the social cost of carbon while working in the Obama administration, said Cain’s ruling could jeopardize efforts to confront climate change.

“The social cost of carbon guides the stringency of climate policy,” said Greenstone, a University of Chicago professor. “Setting it to near-zero Trump administration levels effectively removes all the teeth from climate regulations.”


Iowa governor to offer GOP response to State of the Union

WASHINGTON — Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds will deliver the Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, GOP congressional leaders announced Tuesday as they look outside Washington to appeal to voters in a midterm election year.

Reynolds is the first woman to be elected governor in Iowa. She also was the first governor in the country to require schools to open for full-time in-person learning.

The GOP is anxious to portray GOP-led states as doing a better job of navigating the pandemic than the federal government, where Democrats control the levers of power. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell praised Reynolds for fighting COVID-19 “without forgetting common sense.’’

‘’The President and his team should take notes,” McConnell of Kentucky, said in a statement.

Reynolds pushed back against mask and vaccine mandates amid the coronavirus pandemic. She was chided by the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force for ending mask mandates while Iowa was seeing a rapid increase in cases and deaths. Defying science, Reynolds sometimes spoke skeptically about the effectiveness of masks in halting the spread of the virus.


Trump’s new social network bogged down at start

Former president Donald Trump, a longtime critic of how Democrats debuted healthcare.gov, is facing a bungled website launch of his own.

His long-promised social network, Truth Social, has been almost entirely inaccessible in the first days of its grand debut due to technical glitches, a 13-hour outage, and a 300,000-person waitlist.

Even Trump supporters made jokes about the early slog. Jenna Ellis, a former member of his legal team, posted to Instagram a photo showing Trump with his finger hovering over a laptop, “letting us on to Truth Social one at a time.”

The site had been heralded for months as the crown jewel of Trump’s post-presidential business ambitions, with allies pledging it would revolutionize social media and take down the mainstream social networks where Trump is banned.

But early glimpses at Truth Social suggest its offerings are almost identical to what Twitter and other sites have offered for years — except tweets are called “Truths,” and retweets “ReTruths.” The site’s early struggles also have fueled doubts that Trump’s company will be able to handle tougher long-term challenges, such as policing for dangerous content and guarding against cyberattacks.

“The basic thing they needed to actually get right to get someone in the door, they couldn’t get right,” said Bill Fitzgerald, a privacy researcher. The “ineptitude of the rollout,” he added, could be a warning of future issues ahead: “There is no better sign of a rushed implementation than the fact that you can’t onboard anybody. So I’m hard-pressed to understand why anyone would trust that these people would keep their information safe.”

The site’s problems extend beyond its waitlist: Its logo — a broken capital “T” with a period — is identical to the logo of Trailar, a British seller of truck solar panels. A company executive said it is “seeking legal advice to understand next steps and options available to protect our brand.”


Unsure of districts, candidates sign up to run anyway

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Uncertain of her district but committed to running for Congress anyway, Sara Walsh was up before dawn Tuesday to claim a spot near the front of the line as Missouri candidates began filing for office without new maps in place for the US House and state Senate.

In an unusual start to the 2022 election season, Walsh signed up to run as a Republican in the state’s Fourth Congressional District — hoping it will continue to include her central Missouri home even though some have proposed splitting her county among multiple districts.

“Worst-case scenario, I would just move” to remain in the Fourth District, said Walsh, a current state House member who’s been campaigning for Congress since last summer without knowing the official district boundaries.

All states must redraw their US House and state legislative districts to account for population changes noted by the 2020 census. But a delay in census data because of the coronavirus pandemic compressed the timeline to accomplish the task. Political gridlock and legal battles have further complicated the issue in some states.

Missouri is one of several states where candidates still face uncertainty about their new districts.

North Carolina’s candidate filing period had just begun in December when the state Supreme Court suspended it because of lawsuits challenging US House and state legislative districts passed by the GOP-led Legislature. The court subsequently struck down those districts. The Legislature responded by approving new districts on Feb. 17 — just one week ahead of Thursday’s scheduled resumption of candidate filing. But the situation remains uncertain, because a three-judge trial court has until Wednesday to decide whether the new maps will stand.

In Ohio, the state Supreme Court struck down the latest state legislative districts on Feb. 7 — five days after the candidate filing period ended.


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