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The novel coronavirus pandemic tanked the stock market and sent jobless claims soaring to unprecedented levels this week, but did little to slow the White House’s efforts to boost fossil fuel production and roll back environmental safeguards.
On Wednesday, as the U.S. death toll surpassed 100 and the virus spread to all 50 states, the Trump administration widened what critics call one of its most aggressive assaults on science, auctioned drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico and greenlit the expansion of a mine.
It started when the Environmental Protection Agency formalized its plans to expand on a controversial proposal to restrict the scientific research used to make regulations, broadening the scope to include non-regulatory divisions of the agency as well.
By the afternoon, the Interior Department wrapped up an auction to sell oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, offering up some 78 million offshore acres ― an area roughly the size of New Mexico. It proved to be a bust, bringing in approximately $93 million for just shy of 400,000 acres, the smallest total for an offshore auction since 2016.
By the day’s end, the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management approved a nearly 500-acre expansion of a gold and silver mine on public lands near Bullhead City, Arizona.
Thursday brought the promise of another oil and gas auction, a step forward for a rule likely to increase the deaths of protected bird species, and approval for a new gas pipeline as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 doubled and mass layoffs spiked.
The Bureau of Land Management announced plans to auction off 45,000 acres in southeast New Mexico and West Texas for oil and gas development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, closed the public comment period on a proposed rule to permanently weaken protections for migratory birds, despite calls from environmentalists to extend that and other comment deadlines because of the pandemic. The rule would codify a 2017 policy change that legalized all unintentional killing of migratory bird species, opening the door for gross negligence by fossil fuel, chemical and agricultural interests.
Over at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a panel voted 2-1 to rubber-stamp construction of both the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon’s already-polluted Coos Bay, and the 230-mile Pacific Connector Pipeline. The decision, The Oregonian reported, stunned Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), who warned that the state had not yet approved permitting in the midst of a national emergency.
This week, Trump and his team also quietly appointed Anna Seidman, a longtime lawyer at the trophy hunting advocacy group Safari Club International, to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s international affairs program, as HuffPost reported Friday. Seidman repeatedly sued FWS and other federal agencies during her 20 years at SCI, an organization with more than 50,000 members that has close ties to the Trump administration.
The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 241, with 18,170 confirmed cases as of Friday, according to a CNN tally. The nation reeled from shortages of protective gear, ventilators and testing kits, and doctors pleaded for help, comparing the experience to being “at war with no ammo.”