The Trump administration took an important step toward future oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic shore, approving five requests allowing companies to conduct deafening seismic surveys that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals, according to studies.
In an announcement Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declared that it issued final “incidental take” authorizations permitting companies conducting the surveys to harm wildlife if its unintentional.
“NOAA Fisheries is clear in the documentation related to [incidental take authorizations] that we do not expect mortality to occur as a result of these surveys,” said a spokeswoman, Katherine Brogan. But numerous scientific studies show acoustic sound can harm or potentially kill animals.
The decision is likely to further antagonize governors in states along the Eastern Seaboard who strongly oppose the administration’s proposal to expand federal oil and gas leases to the Atlantic. The authorizations clear the way for surveys across a stretch of ocean between Delaware and Florida.
Every state executive on the coast below Maine opposed the plan. Federal leases could lead to exploratory drilling for the first time in more than a half-century. Several Democrats representing those states in the House and Senate decried the authorizations.
In addition to harming sea life, acoustic tests — in which acoustic waves are sent through water 10 to 12 seconds apart to image the sea floor — can disrupt thriving commercial fisheries. Governors, state lawmakers and attorneys general along the Atlantic coast say drilling threatens beach tourism that has flourished on the coast in the absence of oil production.
Seismic testing maps the ocean floor and estimates the whereabouts of oil and gas, but only exploratory drilling can confirm their presence. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that soiled the Gulf of Mexico resulted from an exploratory drill. Another gulf disaster that looms almost as large has spewed oil for more than 14 years. The Taylor Energy spill of up to an estimated 700 barrels a day started when a hurricane ripped up production wells and could continue for the rest of the century, according to the Interior Department.
The fisheries service announcement comes just a week after the Trump administration released a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that excavating and burning fossil fuels from federal land made up nearly a fourth of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States over a decade ending in 2014.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the administration published a much larger report by 13 federal agencies projecting the severe economic costs of climate change as coastal flooding and wildfires worsen, and hurricanes are becoming more severe. After the administration’s critics accused it of trying to bury the report with a release on Black Friday, President Trump dismissed it out of hand.
“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump said during a freewheeling 20-minute interview with Washington Post reporters.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking minority-party member of the House Natural Resources Committee who will probably take over as chair in the next Congress, blasted the administration’s decision to permit acoustic testing as “an alarming sign of [its] indifference to the fate of coastal communities and marine life, including the endangered north Atlantic right whale.”
He bemoaned the timing of the announcement shortly after the climate report’s release, saying, “There is nothing this administration won’t do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats.”
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) called for congressional action to regulate seismic testing in a tweet Friday. “Since Donald Trump has decided to ignore the concerns of residents and stakeholders directly impacted by seismic blasting and offshore drilling,” he said, “it is time for Congress to step in and put a stop to this by passing my bill, the Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection Act.”
Numerous other Democrats, including Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (Va.) criticized the administration’s decision in tweets.
According to one model prediction used in a 2014 study by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in 2014, nearly 2.5 million dolphins would be harassed or possibly killed by acoustic sound blasts each year in the middle and southern Atlantic, and nearly a half-million pilot whales would be affected.
Six of the impacted mammals in the study area were endangered species, the report said, including four types of whales. The species most impacted would be humpback whales, 12 of which could be killed each year it said. However, BOEM has asserted that there is no confirmed evidence that animals are actually harmed by seismic mapping and considers the threat of incidental take “negligible.”
But that assessment has not comforted opponents of seismic activity. Fewer than two weeks ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service pleaded with commercial fishermen to be careful not to harm Atlantic right whales after an unprecedented 20 deaths in 2016 and 2017 reduced their numbers to a mere 400 in the wild.
“We are very concerned about the future of North Atlantic right whales,” Barb Zoodsma, right whale biologist for NOAA Fisheries, said in a Nov. 15 statement. “We lost 20 right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017 during an Unusual Mortality Event. The number of right whale deaths is troubling for a population of a little more than 400 animals, particularly because we estimate that there are only about 100 breeding females who are producing fewer calves each year.”
The Obama administration denied six permits for seismic testing weeks before Trump took office in 2017 out of concern for wildlife and fisheries. “In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new air-gun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, BOEM’s director at the time.
Shortly after that decision, the American Petroleum Institute condemned it as wrongheaded, saying it would increase energy costs for consumers and shut the door to job creation. The institute, a lobby for the oil and gas industry, pinned its fortunes on the incoming president.
“We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this shortsighted course and base its decisions on facts so that we can have a forward-looking energy policy to help keep energy affordable for American consumers and business, create jobs and strengthen our national security,” spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel said at the time.
In November, API trumpeted studies that purported to show that southern Atlantic states could reap billions of dollars in revenue from oil and gas reserves.
API welcomed Friday’s decision in a statement provided by a spokesman, Reid Porter. “The U.S. needs to know what energy resources exist off of our shores and we are hopeful that permits for surveying for offshore oil and natural gas and a full national offshore leasing plan to explore and develop the outer continental shelf will move forward soon.”
Not surprisingly, conservation groups denounced it. “This action flies in the face of massive opposition to offshore drilling and exploration from over 90 percent of the coastal communities in the proposed blast zone,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, a nonprofit. “President Trump is essentially giving these companies permission to harass, harm and possibly even kill marine life.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council echoed Grijalva’s observation. “Just one week after issuing dire warnings on the catastrophic fallout of climate change . . . the Trump administration is opening our coastlines to for-profit companies to prospect for oil and gas — and is willing to sacrifice marine life, our coastal communities and fisheries in the process,” said Michael Jasny, director of the group’s Marine Mammal Protection Project.
An alliance of businesses and chambers of commerce aligned to protect the Atlantic coast, known as BAPAC, also condemned the decision. “The Outer Banks business community depends on a clean and beautiful coast to support our multi-billion dollar tourism, recreation and fishing industries,” said Karen Brown, president and chief executive of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. “The release of these permits puts us one step closer to oil-covered beaches and economic disaster.”
Houston Recalls Legacy of George Bush, Its Lone Star Yankee and Senior Booster
HOUSTON — Inside the airport that bears his name, George Herbert Walker Bush looks, at a distance, as if he’s wearing a cape.
An 8-foot-tall bronze statue at the Houston airport shows Mr. Bush, who , Barbara Bush, who died in April at the age of 92. After Mr. Bush’s death on Friday, Houston lost its two most famous residents in the span of seven months.
“George H.W. Bush served with valor and integrity as the 41st president of the United States,” Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, said in a statement. “But to Houstonians he was one of our most esteemed and relatable neighbors. He and his wife, Barbara Bush, were our sports teams’ biggest fans, and boosters for everything Houston.”
This was the man whose most memorable quote in years had to do with men’s hosiery. In 2012, as his fondness for wearing bright eye-catching socks was going strong, he explained that he simply “likes a good sock.” At his wife’s funeral at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Mr. Bush wore a pair of socks with a colorful stack-of-books design, a tribute to Mrs. Bush’s advocacy work for family literacy.
In Houston and its surrounding suburbs, Mr. Bush had not only an airport in his name but a park, a high school and a few more life-size statues. Above Buffalo Bayou, a bronze statue of Mr. Bush looks out into the distance with his hand in his pocket, gazing at, of all things, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Mr. Bush’s tennis partner at the Houston Country Club. The statues of the two close friends face each other in the downtown park, separated by about 100 yards, in Houston’s oddest and longest-running staring contest.
“All I can do now,” Mr. Bush told The New York Times in 2011 about the statue, “is hope that the pigeons will be kind and gentle.”
Charles C. Foster, a Houston immigration lawyer and a longtime friend of the Bush family, came up with the idea for the George H.W. Bush Monument, which was unveiled in 2004. Mr. Foster recalled the day he sat in Mr. Bush’s office at 10000 Memorial Drive and asked for his blessing for the project.
“He looked at me and he sort of looked up at the ceiling,” Mr. Foster said. “He pointed to the ceiling and said, ‘Shouldn’t you wait until I’m up there?’ And then he said, pointing downward, ‘Or perhaps down there?’”
In 1990, Mr. Bush helped turn the eyes of the world to Houston.
As president, he brought thousands of reporters and foreign dignitaries to Houston that summer for the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, an annual gathering of the world’s economic powers. The summits had been held in a number of global cities — London, Tokyo, Paris, Venice — and Mr. Bush made the case that his adopted hometown belonged among such world-class company.
Houston was scrappier back then. The city was rebounding from an oil bust in the 1980s that crippled the economy, and it tried hard to present its best, and cleanest, face to the cameras and the visitors, picking up millions of pounds of trash, repaving roads and enlisting the aid of 12,000 volunteers.
“That was huge for Houston,” Mr. Foster said of the 1990 summit. “When the president had a chance, he could have picked some mountain retreat. But he picked his hometown. He was well aware of the chip on our shoulders that we didn’t feel like Houston got the recognition that it should.”
Now, with 2.3 million residents (compared with 1.6 million in 1990), Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, known as much for its diversity as its energy-capital status. George Bush High School, part of the Fort Bend school district, is 43 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black, 12 percent Asian and 4 percent white. More than 90 languages and dialects are spoken in the district.
Early Saturday morning in the upscale Tanglewood area, Houstonians paused at the gates at South Post Oak Lane and North West Oak Drive — the entrance to the gated community where Mr. Bush lived. Someone draped an American flag in the center of the gates, decorated for the holidays with Christmas wreaths.
Shirley Matthews, 66, a lifelong Houstonian who lives nearby, walked up and took a picture of the memorial for her mother. “He was just a good person,” she said. “He wasn’t perfect. But it’s family, and we love each other.”
A Close Race, a Mysterious Ballot and Control of Alaska’s House at Stake
With a crucial legislative seat in Alaska teetering toward a tie earlier this month, lawmakers in Juneau braced for the possibility of a coin toss deciding control of the state’s House of Representatives. Then a mysterious extra ballot emerged that threw the process into further disarray.
Amid several counts, the latest coming on Friday afternoon, a single ballot drew scrutiny across the state.
The state’s review board certified the race, between Kathryn Dodge, a Democrat, and Bart LeBon, a Republican, as a tie earlier this week, with exactly 2,661 votes going to each candidate. The extra ballot, for Ms. Dodge, could have settled the race for the Fairbanks-area district seat.
Later on Friday, the mystery appeared to have been solved — but the standoff over who won the election continued.
Samantha Miller, a spokeswoman for the state elections office, said that workers at Fairbanks’s No. 6 precinct told officials that a woman had come into the polling place to request a special needs ballot on behalf of her husband, who was outside in a vehicle.
The woman came back into the precinct. Her husband had made a mistake, she told the precinct worker, and needed a new ballot. She left behind the one he had already marked, thus making it a spoiled ballot.
The precinct chair told the worker who took the spoiled ballot to put it into a secrecy sleeve, “and that they would deal with it later in the day,” Ms. Miller said.
But instead, the spoiled ballot was put into a compartment with other questioned ballots.
Typically, Ms. Miller said, spoiled ballots are destroyed once they are accounted for. So, because the mystery ballot was found to be spoiled, it will not be counted, she said.
Still, that left the question of what happens if the recount that began on Friday afternoon ends in a tie — again.
Ms. Miller said that both candidates had five days to file a legal challenge to the results. And if the court decided the recount went as it should have, and the race was still a tie?
The prevailing candidate would be determined “by lot,” Ms. Miller said. “It could be a coin toss or some other way of deciding, as long as it’s random.”
It would not be the first time an Alaska race was determined by coin toss.
The state’s elections director at the time flipped an Alaska Mint medallion — the side with a walrus being heads and the side with the state seal being tails. It landed state seal side up.
Ms. Miller would not speculate about when the recount would be complete, but said both candidates were present, along with observers and officials.
Mr. LeBon did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Sara Harriger, a spokeswoman for Ms. Dodge, said in a statement that during Friday’s recount, one additional vote was found for Ms. Dodge and a challenged ballot was allowed for her opponent, Mr. LeBon, which meant that the tally stood at 2,662 apiece. Still tied.
Ms. Dodge said in a statement that she believed every legally cast ballot should be counted. “I just want everyone watching this process to take away a sense of confidence in our democratic system and a commitment to cast their votes in future races,” she said, “and knowing that their votes will matter.”
Ms. Dodge had said earlier on Friday that legal action “unfortunately” seemed probable.
“It’s certainly not what any of us expect when we set out to campaign, to find ourselves in a squeaker of this nature,” she said. “I hope we don’t have a coin toss. I don’t know quite what to say, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an appropriate way to settle an election.”
In Alaska, the repercussions of this race will be felt into the next legislative session, though party control of the House in Juneau will be far from clear-cut.
Political coalitions in Juneau do not always come down to party-line votes like in other state houses. Even if Ms. Dodge wins the race, Democrats would still not have an outright majority, and so members of the House will still be tasked with negotiating a coalition majority.
3 Killed After Pickup Truck Fleeing Border Patrol Hits Tire Spikes and Crashes
Three people in a packed pickup truck were killed on Thursday afternoon after the driver ran over tire spikes and crashed on a Southern California highway while trying to flee Border Patrol officers, the authorities said.
The officers turned on their vehicle’s emergency lights and began chasing the pickup truck on Interstate 8, near Boulevard, Calif., at around 4:20 p.m., according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. The authorities said they believed that the pickup truck had been illegally driven over the southern border and had crashed through an “iron bar vehicle barrier.” They said they identified it by matching a piece that was missing from the truck to one agents had spotted on the ground near the border, though they did not elaborate.
The pickup truck reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, weaving between cars and bypassing others on the side of the highway, before it drove over spikes that the Border Patrol had placed on the road, the California Highway Patrol said. About a mile later, the truck spun out of control and flipped over, ejecting the nine people who were riding in the truck’s bed, the authorities said.
A woman inside the truck, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was killed, as were two people riding in the bed, the police said. Seven people who had “multiple serious injuries” were taken to the hospital, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said.
The driver, a United States citizen whose name was not released, was the only person wearing a seatbelt, the agency said. The California Highway Patrol took the man into custody, but it was not clear whether he had been charged. The identities of the passengers in the truck have not been released either.
“The investigation into the smuggling incident is ongoing,” the spokesman said in an email, “and the Border Patrol is fully cooperating with the CHP in their investigation of the collision.”
About an hour after the crash, the Border Patrol stopped another vehicle that officers believed had crossed over the border with the pickup truck, the agency said. The driver of that car was also arrested.