Company asks for pause in Memphis oil pipeline dispute

MEMPHIS, Tenn. | A company facing resistance to its plans to build an oil pipeline over an aquifer that provides drinking water to 1 million people has asked for a “mutual pause” in its dispute with city officials in Memphis, Tennessee.

Plains All American Pipeline sent a letter to the Memphis City Council about a proposed city law that could make it harder to construct an underground oil pipeline through wetlands and neighborhoods in south Memphis and north Mississippi. Plains is part of a joint venture with Valero Energy to build the Byhalia Connection, which would link the Valero refinery in Memphis with another larger pipeline in north Mississippi.

The council’s ordinance would establish a board to approve or deny construction of underground pipelines that transport oil or other potentially hazardous liquids near wells that pump millions of gallons of water daily from the Memphis Sand Aquifer. The ordinance is backed by pipeline opponents who fear an oil spill would endanger the aquifer.

The council made no mention of the Plains letter during a vote Tuesday to delay a vote on the ordinance for two weeks. Councilors said they decided to postpone a decision so they could address questions they themselves had and allow input from the mayor’s office and the local water company.

In the letter, Plains said Byhalia Connection is willing to suspend development activities and address city council and community concerns “if the City is willing to suspend consideration, adoption, or final reading of the existing or any new ordinance that could affect the pipeline or refinery.”

“We very much appreciate your willingness to talk with us and receive our feedback and work to resolve any differences,” the letter said. “It’s in this light that we would like to propose a ‘mutual pause.’”

Byhalia has threatened to sue if the ordinance passes. In a statement, project spokeswoman Katie Martin called the proposed law “an example of ill-conceived local government overreach that is preempted by state and federal law.”

The ordinance would be just the latest in a series of measures opponents have taken to block the Byhalia Connection pipeline, including a federal lawsuit. They have obtained the support of members of Congress and other well-known figures, including former Vice President Al Gore and actor Jane Fonda.

Plains and Valero want to build the 49-mile (78-kilometer) artery to carry crude oil to the Gulf Coast, a project that they say will bring needed jobs and tax revenue to the region.

Environmentalists, lawyers, activists and politicians who oppose the pipeline are concerned that an oil spill would cause contaminants to seep into the aquifer, which provides slightly sweet drinking water to the Memphis area. In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Southern Environmental Law Center said the clay layer above the aquifer “has several known and suspected breaches, holes, and leaks.”

Activists also are upset that the pipeline would run through poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods in south Memphis that for decades have dealt with environmental concerns such as air and ground pollution.

The ordinance would require underground pipeline builders to provide documentation about any potential adverse effects on the environment and groundwater, and an analysis of the potential for negative effects on minorities, low-income residents, and neighborhoods historically burdened by environmental pollution.

Byhalia Connection has said the pipeline would be built a safe distance from the aquifer, which sits much deeper than the planned pipeline route. The company said the route was chosen after it reviewed population density, environmental features and historic cultural sites.

Byhalia Connection also has said the pipeline route was not driven by factors such as race or class. The company has denied accusations of environmental racism that emerged after a Byhalia Connection land agent said during a community meeting that the developers “took, basically, a point of least resistance” in choosing the pipeline’s path.

“We know environmental racism is real and we’ve listened to this community, but the reason this pipeline runs through South Memphis is to connect to the Valero Refinery,” the company said in a March project update.

Most property owners along the path of the pipeline signed deals with Byhalia Connection to allow the pipeline builder to access their land for construction. Property owners who haven’t agreed to receive payment in return for easements on their land have been taken to court, with the pipeline company’s lawyers trying to use eminent domain rights to claim property.

A federal lawsuit is challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the pipeline under a nationwide permit, and the Shelby County Commission has refused to sell to the pipeline builder two parcels of land that sit on the planned route.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, and about two dozen other members of Congress have sent a letter asking the administration of President Joe Biden to reconsider the permit approval.

Biden taps Montana environmentalist for U.S. public lands boss

BILLINGS, Mont. | President Joe Biden has nominated a longtime environmental advocate and Democratic aide to oversee the vast expanses of federally owned land in Western states — the latest political appointment raising concerns among Republicans as Biden moves to curtail energy production from public reserves.

Tracy Stone-Manning of Missoula, Montana, was nominated late Thursday to direct the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which has jurisdiction over about a quarter-billion acres and one-third of the nation’s underground minerals, including huge reserves of oil, natural gas and coal. The agency regulates drilling, mining, grazing and other activities and is set to play a key role in Biden’s commitment announced Thursday to cut climate warming emissions from fossil fuels by half by 2030.

Stone-Manning, 55, spent the past four years at the National Wildlife Federation, where she led the group’s efforts to preserve public lands for wildlife, hiking, hunting and other nonindustrial uses.

She previously worked as chief of staff to former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, as an aide to Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and three decades ago as a spokesperson for the activist environmental group Earth First.

If confirmed, Stone-Manning would serve under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico who was confirmed over opposition from Republicans citing her criticisms of the oil and gas industry.

The White House dropped plans to install progressive Elizabeth Klein as deputy Interior secretary following objections from Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

The confrontations resemble political fights that took place over many of former President Donald Trump’s appointees — only now it’s environmentalists and progressive activists under scrutiny versus the industry lobbyists favored by Trump.

Stone-Manning opposed Trump’s drilling-friendly policies as destructive to public lands and said in 2019 that the Republican’s agenda had thrown the balance between conservation and development “out of whack.”

Haaland said in a statement that Stone-Manning and Bryan Newland — whom Biden nominated Thursday to be assistant secretary for Indian Affairs — would “help lead the Interior Department’s efforts to pursue a clean energy future, engage Tribal communities and governments, and protect our land, waters and wildlife habitats for generations to come.”

Newland was tribal president of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan and served as a policy adviser for Indian Affairs at Interior under former President Barack Obama.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines said Friday that he and fellow Republicans will look closely at Stone-Manning’s ties to conservation groups that poured money into the 2020 election.

Stone-Manning is listed as a board member and treasurer for Montana Conservation Voters, which sponsored ads targeting Daines when he was challenged by Bullock last year.

“She comes from a very partisan, left-leaning organization and we’re going to have to make sure she represents balanced views here in Montana that reflect where most Montanans are,” Daines said in an interview.

Spokesperson Katie Schoettler said Daines wants to ensure federal lands remain open for both conservation and energy development.

Tester said in a statement that Stone-Manning was a “tireless public lands champion with a lifetime of experience” who would bring much-needed change to the land bureau.

National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara said he has known Stone-Manning since she led Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality for two years beginning in 2013 and considers her a “common-sense conservationist.”

“I think Tracy understands the way we manage our public lands isn’t an either or choice,” he said. “Her track record is really balanced throughout her career, especially over the last 20 years.”

The land management bureau’s director post went unfilled for four years under Trump, who instead relied on a string of acting directors to execute a loosening of restrictions on industry. Chief among them was conservative lawyer William Perry Pendley, who before he took the position advocated for selling off federal lands.

Pendley was ordered removed by a federal judge after leading the bureau for more than year without required Senate confirmation and getting sued by Montana’s governor.

Stone-Manning lined up with Bullock in that fight and sharply criticize Pendley as an illegal appointee who “thumbed his nose at a federal judge” by staying on at the bureau after his authority was removed.

Montana Petroleum Association director Alan Olson, who worked with Stone-Manning on a climate council established by Bullock, described her as highly intelligent and “left of center” but not extreme in her politics and willing to listen to opposing views.

But Olson added that he expects her to get as much pushback from Republicans as Trump appointees got from Democrats and their allies, including Stone-Manning.

“Tracy went after Pendley. She can expect the same,” he said.

‘I’m in!’: Caitlyn

Jenner running for California governor

LOS ANGELES | Caitlyn Jenner’s decision Friday to enter the race for California governor injects a jolt of celebrity into a campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom while raising questions about whether a political newcomer can lead the nation’s most populous state as it recovers from the pandemic.

Jenner — an Olympic hero, reality TV personality and longtime Republican — announced “I’m in” on Twitter, joining a growing list of candidates seeking to oust Newsom from office.

“For the past decade, we have seen the glimmer of the Golden State reduced by one-party rule that places politics over progress and special interests over people. Sacramento needs an honest leader with a clear vision,” Jenner said in a statement announcing her “Caitlyn for California” candidacy.

Newsom, a first-term Democrat, is facing a likely recall election this year, though officials still are reviewing petition signatures required to qualify the proposal for the ballot. County election officials are required to submit their final signature tallies to the state no later than next Thursday.

The race had failed to attract a nationally recognized contender before the entrance of the 71-year-old Jenner, who won the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics and is widely known from shows “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and the spin-off “I Am Cait” that debuted after she came out as a transgender woman in 2015.

However, she is untested as a candidate and little is known about her positions on critical issues facing the state, from the coronavirus pandemic to managing the economy. She has ties to former President Donald Trump, who remains broadly unpopular in California outside his GOP base, as well as his former political operatives.

Jenner credits herself with advancing the movement for equality. But the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality California said it would oppose her candidacy, citing her ties to Trump and Republicans who have sought to undercut transgender rights around the nation.

She also has faced speculation that she’s entering politics to steer attention to her entertainment career.

Still, with her name recognition and ability to attract publicity, she could overshadow other GOP contenders, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom in the 2018 governor’s race.

Hours after Jenner announced she would run, Faulconer took a lightly veiled swipe at her lack of experience in government.

“I think I’m uniquely positioned in terms of somebody who has won elections and knows how to get results,” he told reporters.

Newsom declined to comment directly on Jenner’s candidacy during an event marking the reopening of a section of Highway 1 in Big Sur that collapsed in February. Instead, he pivoted to a rousing defense of his administration, highlighting the state’s progress on constructing roads and bridges, vaccinating Californians and building a budget surplus.

“That’s what I’m focused on,” he said.

But a fundraising appeal from his campaign sent after Jenner’s announcement warned that “we’re going to need help keeping up with Caitlyn’s personal wealth and ability to raise money from right-wing donors, now that she has Trump’s team with her.”

In a statement, Jenner called herself an outsider, “a proven winner” and the only candidate “who can put an end to Gavin Newsom’s disastrous time as governor.”

It was notable that her announcement did not include a video, which is commonplace in political campaign kickoffs. Instead, in her written statement, she referred only vaguely to cutting taxes, a “roadmap back to prosperity” and taking on special interests.

Her campaign did not respond to a request for an on-camera interview.

She described herself as “economically conservative, socially progressive” in a People magazine interview last year.

Her run would come nearly two decades after the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who used his Hollywood fame as a springboard to California’s highest office in a 2003 recall election.

If the recall qualifies as expected for the ballot this year, voters would be asked two questions. First, whether Newsom should be removed from office and second who should replace him.

If a majority says no to recalling Newsom, he stays in office and the votes for the replacements are irrelevant. But if a majority votes to remove him, then whoever among the candidates gets the most votes becomes California governor. With dozens of names expected on the ballot, it’s likely a winner would get less than 50% of the votes.

The recall effort largely has been fueled by criticism of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, which shuttered schools and closed thousands of businesses.

He’s also been hit by the fallout from a multibillion-dollar fraud scandal at the state unemployment agency while weathering a public shaming for dining out with friends and lobbyists at an exclusive San Francisco Bay Area restaurant last fall, while telling state residents to stay home for safety. Photos showed Newsom without a mask.

However, recent polling has suggested Newsom would hold his seat, and the sour public mood could shift as coronavirus restrictions recede. California also is likely to be the recipient of billions of dollars of federal recovery funds, which Newsom will dispense and could use to his political advantage.

Anne Dunsmore, a consultant for Rescue California, one of the political committees backing the recall, said she recently spoke to Jenner and views her as a serious candidate.

“I don’t think she’s going to use it to further her own purpose, but rather bring awareness to what’s happening here,” Dunsmore said.

Jenner made headlines in recent years with her ties to Trump, who lost to Joe Biden in the state by over 5 million votes.

Jenner supported Trump in 2016 but later criticized his administration’s reversal of a directive on transgender access to public school bathrooms. She also split with Trump after he said transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.

The team advising Jenner has included Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren, who also worked for Trump’s campaign.

Jenner also could face questions about a 2015 fatal crash in which she rear-ended two cars. A 69-year-old woman was killed when her car was pushed into the path of an oncoming Hummer.

Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, noted that voters have embraced non-traditional candidates in the past, including Schwarzenegger. But Jenner will face long odds because of her links to Trump in the heavily Democratic state, while also lacking an established political constituency.

Still, she has “the ability to directly reach out to millions of voters” through social media, Kousser said. “It would be a mistake to view her of one of these ‘circus candidates.’”

Idaho Senate OKs bill to kill up to 90% of wolves in state

BOISE, Idaho | The Idaho Senate on Wednesday approved legislation allowing the state to hire private contractors to kill up to 90% of the wolves roaming Idaho.

The agriculture industry-backed bill approved Wednesday on 26-7 vote includes additional changes intended to cut the wolf population from about 1,500 to 150.

“These wolves, there’s too many in the state of Idaho now,” said Republican Sen. Mark Harris, one of the bill’s sponsors, during debate on the Senate floor. “We’re supposed to have 15 packs, 150 wolves. We’re up to 1,553, was the last count, 1,556, something like that. They’re destroying ranchers. They’re destroying wildlife. This is a needed bill.”

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported in February that the wolf population has been holding at about 1,500 the past two years. The numbers were derived by using remote cameras and other methods.

About 500 wolves have been killed in the state in each of the last two years by hunters, trappers and wolf-control measures carried out by state and federal authorities.

Republican Sen. Van Burtenshaw, another of the bill’s sponsors, downplayed the number of wolves to be killed while debating the bill.

“The purpose of this legislation is to control the population, not to wipe them out,” he said. “There’s never been any discussion in the working group of complete annihilation of the wolf population, or killing 90% of the wolves.”

However, Burtenshaw the previous day at a committee hearing for the bill cited numbers contained in Idaho’s 2002 wolf conservation and management plan. The plan calls for at least 150 wolves and 15 packs in Idaho. He said the state is allowed to increase the killing of wolves to reach that level. If the wolf population falls below 150, the killing of wolves would have to be reduced.

Also according to the plan, if Idaho’s wolf population fell to 100, there’s a possibility the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could resume management of its wolf population. The 2002 document says wolf management could revert to what was in place when wolves were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne noted nothing in the proposed law prevented the killing of wolves down to 150.

“We do know that if we want to maintain our agreement with the federal government, we need to stop at 90%,” he said. “That’s what we know.”

A primary change in the new law is the hiring of private contractors to kill wolves. The legislation includes increasing the amount of money the Idaho Department of Fish and Game sends to the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control board from $110,000 to $300,000. The board, created in 2014, is an agency within the governor’s office that manages state money it receives to kill wolves.

Other changes in the legislation include removing any limit on the number of wolf tags issued to a hunter, meaning there would be no restriction on how many wolves one person is allowed to kill. Wolves, though, have proved difficult to find and kill for the vast majority of hunters and trappers.

The legislation also combines a hunting tag with a trapping and snaring tag, meaning only one tag is needed for those combined methods. Wolf trapping would be allowed year-round on private land.

In addition, the legislation makes changes to allow hunting wolves with ATVs and snowmobiles and other methods allowed for animals classified as predators, such as coyotes. Also, state agencies outside of Idaho would be allowed to kill wolves in Idaho.

The measure now goes to the House.

“The Idaho Senate’s sudden move to pass this bill in the eleventh hour incentivizes the cruel deaths of more than 1,000 wolves across the state,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The consequences of this bill will be horrendous. This brutal war on wolves must be stopped, and we urge the House to deny this bill.”

—From AP reports

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