Today’s Key Takeaways: Supremes seem to side with EPA on WOTUS war. Geologist responsible for large find on North Slope exploring again this winter. AGDC to assess ammonia in Cook Inlet. AI supporting gold mineral exploration. Like Obama, Manchin tries to fast-track transmission and fails.
NEWS OF THE DAY:
Supreme Court appears to back EPA in WOTUS war
Pamela King, Hannah Northey, E & E News, October 3, 2022
The Supreme Court on Monday appeared reluctant to wrest wetlands permitting power from EPA in a dispute that had been expected to significantly narrow the scope of the Clean Water Act.
During oral arguments in Sackett v. EPA, at least some of the six conservative justices indicated that they were skeptical of arguments from an Idaho couple that the Supreme Court should reach back to its 2006 decision in Rapanos v. United States to apply a more restrictive approach to Clean Water Act jurisdiction penned by the late Justice Antonin Scalia and upend about 50 years of federal practice.
The couple — Michael and Chantell Sackett — argue that Scalia’s approach would finally allow them to build their dream home near Idaho’s Priest Lake — without a costly federal permit.
But conservative justices’ inquiries about the text of the Clean Water Act and practices of prior administrations indicated that the court “is not just reflexively adopting the petitioners’ call for wholesale adoption of the Scalia plurality Rapanos test, or buying the Sacketts’ focus on traditional navigable waters,” said Georgetown University law professor Bill Buzbee in an emailed statement.
He added: “No question indicates the Court’s willingness to basically write wetlands out of the statute.”
In their plea to the nation’s highest bench, the Sacketts asked the justices to bring clarity to the court’s splintered 4-1-4 ruling in Rapanos. The case delivered two competing tests for defining what qualifies as a water of the United States, or WOTUS, that is subject to automatic protection under the Clean Water Act.
Federal courts — including the lower bench that decided the Sacketts’ property near Idaho’s Priest Lake contained a jurisdictional wetland — have largely applied the more expansive “significant nexus” test expressed by former Justice Anthony Kennedy in his Rapanos concurrence. The Sacketts have favored Scalia’s more restrictive “continuous surface connection” test articulated in his Rapanos plurality opinion.
With six conservative justices on the bench — including some who look to Scalia as a mentor — legal observers had expected the Sacketts to easily win their case.
But during arguments, the justices largely did not focus on the question of whether Kennedy’s or Scalia’s test should rule Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Rather, they homed in on the definition of an “adjacent” wetland and whether the Sacketts’ property would qualify as one. Even some of the Republican-appointed justices did not appear ready to side with the Sacketts, said Kevin Minoli, former EPA acting general counsel and a partner at the firm Alston & Bird LLP.
Geologist whose 2013 discovery ‘revolutionized’ North Slope oil exploration lays plans to drill again this winter
Alex DeMarban, Anchorage Daily News, October 3, 2022
The risk-taking geologist who discovered a giant Alaska oil field in 2013 that companies had long overlooked is taking another stab at exploration drilling on the North Slope, this time on federal land west of existing development.
Bill Armstrong, owner of Colorado-based North Slope Energy, in August filed a plan with state environmental regulators, spelling out his intention to drill two wells into a prospect known as West Castle.
The site is located in the northeastern section of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, more than 50 miles southwest of the village of Nuiqsut.
Armstrong said the prospect’s characteristics look similar to the giant Pikka oil field that he discovered on state land nearly a decade ago, and similar to ConocoPhillips’ huge Willow prospect, found after the company followed in the footsteps of Armstrong’s discovery.
Oil from Pikka and Willow, if the fields are developed, is expected to significantly boost Alaska oil production and revenues. The federal government is currently weighing approval of the Willow prospect. As for Pikka, two major oil companies announced this summer that they would commit $2.6 billion to begin developing it.
Armstrong said in an interview on Thursday there is no guarantee that West Castle, located southwest of Pikka and Willow, also holds a colossal cache of oil.
“We know what we’re looking for and we know it looks like Pikka and Willow, but at the end of day, these are wildcat wells,” he said, referring to drilling outside existing fields. “Even though the likelihood is better than just a random wildcat, it’s still a wildcat, so it’s not a sure thing.”
LEADING ENERGY ORGANIZATIONS TO COLLABORATE ON COOK INLET
AMMONIA PRODUCTION AND CARBON SEQUESTRATION ASSESSMENT
ANCHORAGE, AK (Oct. 4) – Today, the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) announced an agreement between leading energy organizations to assess the potential to produce zero-carbon ammonia in the Cook Inlet region of Southcentral Alaska.
The parties – AGDC, Mitsubishi Corporation, TOYO Engineering Corporation and Hilcorp Alaska – have signed a memorandum of understanding to evaluate the commercial feasibility of utilizing North Slope natural gas delivered to Southcentral Alaska via the Alaska LNG Project to produce carbon-free ammonia. The carbon dioxide generated from this process is able to be captured and sequestered in secure underground geologic formations, and Alaska’s Cook Inlet basin has been identified by scientists as having world-class carbon sequestration potential. This assessment project will further define Cook Inlet’s sequestration potential and the economics for producing clean ammonia alongside LNG in Alaska.
Ammonia emits no carbon dioxide when burned to produce energy, is rich in hydrogen, and is easier to transport than hydrogen. Ammonia is central to the zero-carbon energy strategies of nations across the Pacific Rim, including goals by Japan and Korea to become carbon neutral by 2050. Japan plans to grow ammonia use in energy production to three million tons per year by 2030, up from zero today.
In addition to Cook Inlet’s carbon sequestration capabilities, the parties factored other unique Alaska advantages into the decision to initiate the ammonia assessment. Round-trip tanker transport from Alaska to key Asian markets is more than 12,000 miles shorter than from the U.S. Gulf Coast, reducing costs and shipping emissions. Alaska delivered a 45-year record of success exporting LNG to Asia.
About the parties:
The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) is an independent, public corporation of the State of Alaska charged with maximizing the benefit of Alaska’s North Slope natural gas though the development of infrastructure to deliver gas to local and international markets. More information about the Alaska LNG Project can be found at https://alaska-lng.com. More information about AGDC is available at https://agdc.us.
Mitsubishi Corporation is a global integrated business enterprise that develops and operates businesses across virtually every industry including natural gas, industrial materials, petroleum & chemicals solution, mineral resources, industrial infrastructure, automotive & mobility, food industry, consumer industry, power solution and urban development. For more information about Mitsubishi, visit https://www.mitsubishicorp.com/jp/en.
Minerva AI case study for Klondike Gold
Shane Lasley, North 0f 60 Mining News, September 29, 2022
Continuing a trend of supporting mineral exploration with its cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning software, Minerva Intelligence Inc. has carried out a case study on the Lone Star gold zone on Klondike Gold Corp.’s Eldorado property in the Dawson Creek Mining District of Yukon, Canada.
Evaluated using Minerva’s DRIVER software, Klondike Gold says it was extremely impressed with the results.
“The close agreement between DRIVER’s model extents and anisotropy (rocks with engineering properties that vary with direction) with that of the manually created block model strengthens the confidence of the gold distribution at the Lone Star zone,” said Klondike Gold President and CEO Peter Tallman. “This program was successful in helping us target higher grades within the known resource areas and to guide us for new discoveries.”
The Minerva study compared the gold model generated by DRIVER to existing block models of gold in the Lone Star zone that were made using conventional orebody modeling techniques. The results showed that Minerva’s DRIVER software was able to successfully recreate the enriched gold model along with 35 other elements within the datasets in a single day, as opposed to the three weeks when done manually.
Like Manchin, Obama tried to fast-track transmission. Nope.
Benjamin Storrow, Climatewire, October 3, 2022
President Joe Biden needs to run transmission lines through deserts and over mountains to meet America’s climate goals. His old boss could tell him how hard that massive build-out will be.
In 2011, the Obama administration formed the Rapid Response Team for Transmission. It had one objective: to expedite the permitting process for seven major transmission lines across the country. But more than a decade later, only two projects have been finished. The others are in various stages of incompletion. One was abandoned, another is partially done and the remaining three are only now nearing the first scoop of a shovel.
Those delays underscore the difficulty of building high-voltage transmission in the U.S. and reveal a towering roadblock to America’s climate goals. Congress recently passed $369 billion in clean energy tax credits in an effort to green the U.S. economy. But the country will need to more than double the rate of transmission development this decade to fully realize the emission benefits of that funding, according to an analysis by Princeton University researchers.
“We need to get a better balance because we just can’t take 10 or 16 years to build a really good transmission project. It is not tolerable,” said Ken Wilson, an engineering fellow at Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group. “If that continues to be the norm, we’re not going to have an environment to worry about. It’s going to be burned up and dried up, and the stuff we wanted to protect won’t be there anymore.”
Transmission has traditionally been a priority for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Building long-range, high-voltage power lines gives grid operators more flexibility to move power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed, increasing reliability and reducing costs.
That is especially important to facilitate the rapid growth of renewables. Wind and solar power that’s generated in one part of the country needs to be shipped to cities and regions that use it. Take the example of TransWest Express, one of the projects selected by the Obama administration to be quickly permitted by the Rapid Response Team for Transmission.
The 732-mile line would bring wind power from Wyoming to California. The Golden State needs green electrons in the evening, when its natural gas plants ramp up to offset a decline in solar generation. Wyoming wind tends to blow strongest when the sun goes down.
“We need to be moving toward a much more integrated grid that moves clean megawatt-hours to where they are needed at a moment’s notice,” said Ben Serrurier, an electricity analyst at RMI.
But building transmission in America is hard. Last year, the country installed less than 400 miles of new line compared with 1,400 miles in 2020, according to the American Clean Power Association, a trade group (Climatewire, Sept. 6).
America’s electric system is broken into a series of regional grids, and connecting them can be difficult. There is not an overarching organization tasked with planning inter-regional lines. Projects crossing federal lands often require approvals from multiple agencies. State regulators need to sign off on transmission corridors and, sometimes, their costs. The longer the line, the more confusion there is.
The very nature of transmission can make it a tough sell politically. High-voltage direct-current lines, which are commonly used to ship power long distances, can be like highways without exits. They pass through regions without supplying power to the communities they cross. That can create resistance in towns and states that host the lines but don’t receive the power.
“These transmission projects serve interests in multiple states, they serve national imperatives like resilience and reliability. But they also have impacts on states and communities,” said Jeff Dennis, general counsel and managing director at Advanced Energy Economy, a trade association. “We need to reassess permitting across the board to balance those objectives and put the right amount of resources into really moving these projects forward and addressing their impacts in a more timely way.”
Congress recently tried to break the logjam. A proposal by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) would have given the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission far-reaching power to approve new transmission lines, in an attempt to streamline permitting and jump-start construction.
But the proposal was dropped after Democrats rebelled against parts of the bill aimed at expediting permits for fossil fuel infrastructure. Republicans also lined up against the bill, with some expressing concern the transmission provisions would trample on states’ rights. Both parties have expressed interest in reviving the debate, but their differing objectives make a path forward hard to see (E&E Daily, Sept. 28).
That leaves Biden in a similar situation as former President Barack Obama: relying on existing authority to approve long-distance high-voltage lines.
But Biden has an edge over his former boss.
Congress passed permitting reforms in 2015 aimed at speeding up the regulatory process for projects that need federal approval. The bipartisan infrastructure law finalized last year gave the Energy Department authority to designate transmission corridors of national interest (Climatewire, Nov. 9, 2021). And the Inflation Reduction Act, the massive climate and health measure signed into law in August, provided $375 million to the Energy Department, Interior Department and FERC for permitting.
Yet the challenges are still just as daunting as they were when the Rapid Response Team for Transmission tried to pry obstacles out of the way a decade ago. The Obama-era initiative, which was overseen by the Council on Environmental Quality, was meant to improve coordination among all the federal agencies that approve transmission lines (Greenwire, Oct. 6, 2011).
Agencies have differing missions, prompting them to approach the permitting process differently. The idea of the Rapid Response Team for Transmission was to put senior officials from agencies like the Interior Department, Energy Department and EPA in the same room to resolve their differences.
The group focused much of its attention on the West, where transmission lines often traverse vast swaths of federal land, requiring approvals from multiple agencies before construction can begin. TransWest, for instance, needed to obtain approvals from the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Forest Service. In the case of BLM, 14 individual field offices had input on the project.
Developers and federal officials involved in the process said the team was successful in improving coordination among agencies. But that coordination only went so far. One federal agency cannot order another to finish its portion of an environmental review by a certain date. They also noted that federal permitting was only one piece of the puzzle. State permitting processes take place on a separate track.
As a result, just two lines were completed: one linking Minnesota to Wisconsin and another connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The five Western projects floundered.
PacifiCorp’s Energy Gateway project, which would increase wind exports from Wyoming, is the furthest along. The company has completed 140 miles of its planned 2,000-mile expansion. Cascade Crossing, initially planned as a 215-mile line through Oregon, was canceled altogether.
“It was somewhat helpful; I wouldn’t say it was tremendously helpful,” said David Getts, general manager of the company that proposed SunZia Transmission, one of the seven projects to receive the Obama-era designation. “I wouldn’t say it was lack of people or resources, but lack of statutory authority. In the effort to improve something, it is very difficult to speed up federal permitting without changes to the underlying laws that govern federal permitting.”
SunZia and an associated wind farm are an $8 billion project. It was proposed by SouthWestern Power Group in 2006, with the intent of carrying wind from New Mexico into Arizona, where it could be sold throughout the West. It spent seven years under review by the Bureau of Land Management, was reviewed by state regulators in Arizona and New Mexico, and had to strike agreements with private landowners situated along the route. On top of that, 100 miles of the line was rerouted after the Defense Department raised concerns over its proximity to a missile base in New Mexico. It is now undergoing a permit amendment with BLM.
SunZia was sold this year to a renewable developer, which is aiming to start construction in 2023.
The experience left Getts doubtful that the pace of permitting timelines can be significantly reduced. He pointed to the extensive public meetings and comment periods as an example. That feedback ultimately helped create a better project, but it took time.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “The simple answer is if you’re trying to permit hundreds of miles of electric lines at high voltage, at best case, unless there is some dramatic change in federal and state levels, it is going to take 10 years to permit a major transmission project.”
Here’s another example of the plodding pace.
In the Pacific Northwest, a 290-mile line linking Oregon and Idaho received final approval from Oregon regulators last week, five years after BLM issued its final environmental review.
The decision highlights the complex interplay between states and the federal government, said Adam Richins, chief operating officer at Idaho Power, one of the three utilities developing the project. State permitting for Boardman to Hemingway, or B2H as the line is known, could not begin until federal permitting was complete.
“The state-federal process needs to be coordinated,” Richins said. “To the extent you can reduce the overlapping requirements and duplicative requirements, that is helpful.”
B2H is part of Idaho Power’s wider effort to power its system with zero-carbon energy by tapping different resources across the West. The line connects the Pacific Northwest, which is rich in hydropower, with Idaho, which has access to large amounts of Wyoming wind. The two systems also peak at different times of the year. Electricity demand in the Northwest is highest in the winter. In Idaho, it peaks in the summer.
“It’s really taking advantage of the diversity of generation resources, but also the diversity of time and when these areas need these resources,” Richins said.
A federal official who took part in the rapid response team said the group succeeded in establishing best practices for projects. Those included early engagement among developers, federal agencies and local communities. But he conceded that the group was “working within the margins” of the law. State processes take time, even when done in coordination with the federal government. And a single federal agency cannot dictate a permitting timeline to its peers.
The permitting bill proposed by Manchin sought to answer many of those concerns. It would have set a two-year deadline on National Environmental Policy Act reviews and tasked a single agency with coordinating permitting efforts across the government. The bill would have also expanded on the bipartisan infrastructure law by giving FERC the power to approve transmission corridors of national interest and exercise powers of eminent domain if needed.
Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, said she believed the Biden administration has the tools to move transmission development forward. Funding from the Inflation Reduction Act should give federal agencies the resources they need to permit projects quicker. And the infrastructure law gives the Energy Department authority to designate transmission corridors of national interest.
“I think there are any number of ways to make the government work better,” Dillen said. “I think this is a chance for a reset, and we have to take it.”
The Department of Energy’s Grid Deployment Office is leading a study to identify regional transmission lines, said Charisma Troiano, a DOE spokeswoman. A recent DOE study found transmission capacity needed to expand 60 percent by 2030 to relieve a backlog of renewables waiting to connect to the grid, she noted.
“We know that the foundation of the nation’s climate and clean energy goals is a safe, reliable, and resilient electric grid that is planned hand-in-hand with community partners and industry stakeholders,” Troiano wrote in an email.
Project developers, meanwhile, continue to wait.
TransWest, which applied for its first federal permit in 2008 and received its final environmental review in 2020, is waiting for BLM to allow it to start construction. A decision is expected early next year. The project has applied to join the California Independent System Operator.
PacifiCorp recently started construction on a 415-mile segment of its Gateway project, which will carry wind power from eastern Wyoming to central Utah. And Idaho Power is anticipating a legal appeal to its Oregon permit for B2H. The line is expected to come online in 2026.
Getts and the SouthWestern Power Group have moved onto a second transmission line that would run alongside SunZia. The line, named El Rio Sol, has been in development for 15 years and will likely take three more years to permit. When it’s done, Getts will be finished with transmission.
“My company, my management, would not start on another journey knowing what we know now. We didn’t expect it to take so long or so much money,” he said. “I don’t think it is a repeatable, sustainable business model.”