PRO-POLLUTER PANDEMIC PRIORITIES
Trump’s white glove, VIP service for the fossil fuel industry during the COVID-19 pandemic reveal his true priorities
While more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment, more than 100,000 have died from COVID-19 and an estimated 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed, Donald Trump has made it a priority to hand out favors to fossil fuel industry donors and CEOs.
Trump has prioritized coronavirus stimulus programs shaped by oil lobbyists to give $2 billion (and counting) to oil companies
- At least 37 oil companies saw $1.9 billion in tax benefits from changes to tax rules
- A tax watchdog said “This is a stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry.”
- Marathon Petroleum recorded a $411M tax benefit from the bailout and plans to pay out $400M to shareholders in June
- $72 million from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program created for small businesses to keep their employees on payroll went to oil and coal companies
- A lobbying effort by oil and gas got the Fed to change the Main Street Lending Program to allow oil companies to refinance existing debt
- There is still no requirement to keep employees on payroll
- The Fed is also taking an unprecedented step of propping up the market for corporate junk bonds, purchasing “fallen angel” bonds that were recently downgraded to junk status
- Energy companies make up more than half of that market
- The Fed’s announcement alone of these changes helped spur the US energy junk bond market with its biggest rally in four years
- We’ll find out more about the fossil fuel bailouts when the Fed’s lending programs begin operating at the end of May
- The Congressional Oversight Commission wants to know “What are the Treasury and the Fed doing with $500 billion of taxpayer money?” and “Who is that money helping?”
Meanwhile, in the middle of this worldwide pandemic, Trump has been rolling back public health protections to benefit his fossil fuel industry allies
- Trump waived air pollution requirements and payments for fines for sources like refineries and rolled back common-sense clean cars standards – a rollback asked for by the oil industry
- Trump ignored warnings from scientists that this would worsen air pollution
- A study showed that air pollution is linked to a higher rate of death from COVID-19
- Trump issued an order claiming authority to permanently waive safeguards, using the excuse of the pandemic to give corporations freedom to pollute without consequences.
- Trump is still pushing a proposal that will prevent scientific studies from being considered in public health policy issues
- Trump sold out our public lands – giving away drilling leases at reduced prices and cutting royalty rates for oil pumped from public lands, even though nobody needed cheaper oil
- This became public just days after Trump slapped solar and wind projects on federal lands with a retroactive demand for increased rent
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Ordinary People Struggle While Oil Companies Cash In On Stimulus
More than 40 million unemployment claims have been filed, 100,000 people have died, and an estimated 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed after Trump ignored critical early warnings and struggled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Congress was developing the CARES act, the $2 trillion stimulus legislation aimed at keeping small businesses and individuals afloat through tough economic times caused by the pandemic, oil companies were busily lobbying Congress, looking for bailouts. From what we can see so far, they succeeded.
At least 37 oil companies saw $1.9 billion in tax benefits from changes to tax rules that let oil companies deduct recent losses from before the pandemic. A tax watchdog called this change,“a stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry.” Marathon Petroleum even recorded a $411 million tax benefit and plans to pay out $400 million to shareholders in June.
We also already know that at least $72 million went to fossil fuel companies in the form forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection program, a loan forgiveness program meant to give money to small businesses to keep their employees on the payroll. We don’t have the full picture of how much money the oil and gas industry has taken from this program as the only available data comes from publicly-traded companies that are required to file financial statements with the SEC.
Treasury Lending Programs Tweaked To Help Oil Companies
Meanwhile, as attention has been focused on the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, oil lobbyists have been very hard at work lobbying the Federal Reserve and working with friendly congressional contacts to shape details of how two additional lending programs created as a result of the CARES Act and launching in late May will be implemented.
The oil and gas industry was already struggling with debt loads before the coronavirus pandemic thrust markets into turmoil, so when the Federal Reserve initially announced details of the Main Street Lending Program in early April it set off a lobbying bonanza. Following a series of letters from both Senator Ted Cruz and the Independent Petroleum Association, the Federal Reserve changed the terms of the Main Street Lending Program to allow borrowers to use the money to pay off existing corporate debt. One change that was not made to the lending program: There is still no meaningful requirement for these companies to keep workers on their payroll.
Another Federal Reserve program announced in April was a set of corporate credit facilities that would take the unprecedented step of purchasing bonds that had been recently downgraded to junk status. Energy companies make up more than half of the market of so-called “fallen angel” junk bonds that the Federal Reserve is targeting. Just the announcement of this bond bailout program alone was enough to spur the U.S. energy junk bond market to its biggest rally in four years.
These Federal Reserve programs will mainly begin operating at the end of May, although as of May 12th, some investments are being made indirectly in exchange-traded funds that hold corporate bonds.
Unfortunately, there is very little hard data available right now. In fact, the Congressional Oversight Commission charged with reporting to Congress on these programs just issued their first report titled “Questions About the CARES Act’s $500 Billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Funds,” which ended by asking more questions to be answered by the Treasury and Federal Reserve.
Trump Is Using The Pandemic To Check Off Big Oil’s Wish List And Throw Out Public Health Protections
In the middle of this respiratory pandemic, Trump has rolled back public health protections to benefit his fossil fuel industry allies. First, Trump waived air pollution requirements and even for sources like refineries for sources like refineries even told polluters who had already agreed to settlements that they didn’t have to pay their fines. Now Trump is claiming authority to permanently waive environmental safeguards during this crisis.
Trump rolled back clean cars standards over the objections of EPA scientists who warned that it would lead to more pollution. Meanwhile, a study showed that particulate air pollution that comes from vehicle exhaust and power plants is linked to a higher rate of death from COVID-19. Rather than listening to the warnings of scientists and experts, Trump’s EPA is trying to prevent scientific research from being considered when making important public health policy decisions.
While oil prices were collapsing amid a massive supply glut, Trump still moved forward with drilling lease sales, auctioning off rights to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, netting the lowest return in years. Royalty rates on oil pumped from active wells on public lands were also given steep cuts. Meanwhile, renewable energy companies developing solar and wind projects on public land have been hit with a retroactive increase in their rent bills. These moves have nothing to do with meeting market demands and have everything to do with Trump selling out our public resources to reward his oil industry friends.
ORDINARY PEOPLE ARE STRUGGLING
5/21/2020: NBC News Headline: “New Weekly Figures Show Almost 40 Million People Lost Their Job Since The Pandemic.” On May 21, 2020, NBC News reported: “Another 2.44 million Americans filed for initial unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total number of people who lost their job so far during the coronavirus pandemic to almost 40 million. The weekly figures, released Thursday by the Department of Labor, come amid a slew of bankruptcies and as more companies announce layoffs.” [NBC News, 5/21/2020]
100,000 Small Businesses Have Closed Permanently. “The White House and Congress have made saving small businesses a linchpin of the financial rescue, even passing a second stimulus for them late last month. But already, economists project that more than 100,000 small businesses have shut permanently since the pandemic escalated in March, according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Their latest data suggests at least 2 percent of small businesses are gone, according to a survey conducted May 9 to 11. The carnage has been even higher in the restaurant industry, where 3 percent of restaurant operators have gone out of business, according to the National Restaurant Association.” [Washington Post, 5/12/2020]
Associated Press: “This Is The Week When America’s Official Death Toll Reaches Six Digits.” On May 27, 2020, the Associated Press reported: “The fraught, freighted number of this particular American moment is a round one brimming with zeroes: 100,000. A hundred thousands. A thousand hundreds. Five thousand score. More than 8,000 dozen. All dead. This is the week when America’s official coronavirus death toll reaches six digits. One hundred thousand lives wiped out by a disease unknown to science a half a year ago.” [Associated Press, 5/27/2020]
THE CARES ACT
The CARES Act Was A $2 Trillion Coronavirus Response Bill Meant To Keep Businesses And Individuals Afloat. On March 26, 2020, NPR reported; “The Senate has passed a roughly $2 trillion coronavirus response bill intended to speed relief across the American economy. This is the third aid package from Congress and is meant to keep businesses and individuals afloat during an unprecedented freeze on the majority of American life. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described the legislation, known as the CARES Act, as necessary emergency relief and vowed to put partisanship aside to get it done.” [NPR, 3/26/2020]
At Least 11 Oil And Gas Companies Reported Lobbying Congress On The Coronavirus Stimulus Package. On May 12, 2020, Friends of the Earth reported: “At least 11 oil and gas companies and trade associations reported lobbying on tax issues in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed in March. The filings indicate that tax policy was Big Oil’s largest single intervention in stimulus negotiations.” [Friends Of The Earth, 5/12/2020]
Bloomberg: “More Than $1.9 Billion In CARES Act Tax Benefits Are Being Claimed By At Least 37 Oil Companies.” On May 15, 2020, Bloomberg reported: “More than $1.9 billion in CARES Act tax benefits are being claimed by at least 37 oil companies, service firms and contractors, according to a Bloomberg News review of recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Besides Diamond Offshore, which declined to comment, recipients include oil producer Occidental Petroleum Corp. and refiner Marathon Petroleum Corp.” [Bloomberg, 5/15/2020]
- Tax Watchdog Says: “This Is A Stealth Bailout For The Oil And Gas Industry.” In an article about the oil and gas industry taking advantage of tax benefits in the CARES Act, Bloomberg reported: “‘This is a stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry,’ said Jesse Coleman, a senior researcher with Documented, a watchdog group tracking the tax claims. It’s geared to companies ‘that have been losing money over the last few years — and now they get that money back as a check from the taxpayers. That’s exactly what the oil industry has been doing.’” [Bloomberg, 5/15/2020]
- Bloomberg Analysis Of Tax Law Changes In CARES Act: “Its Structure Uniquely Benefits Energy Companies.” In an article about the oil and gas industry taking advantage of tax benefits in the CARES Act, Bloomberg reported on a change in tax law that gives firms more latitude to deduct recent losses: “The change wasn’t aimed only at the oil industry. However, its structure uniquely benefits energy companies that were raking in record profits in 2018 as crude prices reached $76.41 per barrel, only to see their fortunes flip a year later.” [Bloomberg, 5/15/2020]
Marathon Petroleum Reported A $411 Million Tax Benefit From The CARES Act And Plans To Pay Out $400 Million To Shareholders In June. On May 21, 2020, the Orlando Sentinel reported: “Oil refiner Marathon Petroleum Corp. recorded a $411 million income tax benefit as a result of the CARES Act. That’s one of the largest tax savings any company has reported so far. With oil prices depressed and stay-at-home orders sapping demand for fuel, Marathon reported a $9.2 billion loss for the first quarter. But the company also raised its dividend by 9 percent and paid out nearly $400 million to shareholders. It plans to pay another $400 million to shareholders in June.” [Orlando Sentinel, 5/21/2020]
Oil Companies Using The Paycheck Protection Program
The Paycheck Protection Program Gives Loans To Small Businesses That Are Forgiven If They Use The Money To Keep Employees On The Payroll. According to the Small Business Administration: “The Paycheck Protection Program is a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. SBA will forgive loans if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.” [Small Business Administration website accessed 5/17/2020]
By Mid-May, 2020, At Least 16 Publicly Traded Fossil Fuel Companies Took Advantage Of $72 Million Worth Of Paycheck Protection Program Funds. On May 10, 2020, Vice News reported: “The oil business is in rough shape these days, but it’s got friends in high places. And they’re coming with cash. Multimillion-dollar companies in the oil and gas sector scored at least $72 million in federally-backed loans earmarked for small businesses, according to financial records reviewed by VICE News. And that’s despite warnings from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that big companies should look elsewhere for funds to survive the pandemic, and could face audits or even ‘criminal liability’ if they misstate their needs. At least 16 drillers, fuel transporters, oil technology firms and service providers tapped the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program, which was created by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March, the records show. Most of those borrowers are valued at over $10 million on the stock market.” [Vice News, 5/10/2020]
- Vice Headline: “At Least $72 Million In Coronavirus Bailout Loans Went To Big Oil And Gas Companies” [Vice News, 5/10/2020]
The Paycheck Protection Program Ran Out Of Money By April 16 And Required An Additional Round Of Funding From Congress. On May 11, 2020, CNBC reported: “Although some of the money was disbursed to small businesses, the PPP ran out of the $349 billion in funds allocated by April 16. It then resumed lending on April 27, after Congress authorized another $310 billion round of funding. With demand very high, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said on May 3 that a third tranche of funding may be needed.” [CNBC, 5/11/2020]
An Oil Services Firm Under Investigation For Financial Wrongdoing Received $6.8 Million From The Paycheck Protection Program. On May 20, 2020, the Washington Post reported: “An oil services firm under investigation as of this month by two federal agencies and the state of Alaska received a $6.8 million loan meant for small businesses hammered by the coronavirus pandemic. SAExploration Holdings, Inc., a Houston-based company that specializes in mapping underground pockets of oil and gas in Alaska and elsewhere, received the injection of money earlier this month from the Paycheck Protection Program, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s been under investigation since last year by the SEC and Justice Department for alleged financial wrongdoing.” [Washington Post, 5/20/2020]
Debt Refinancing Through The Main Street Lending Program
The Oil & Gas Industry Was Already Facing A “Massive Load Of High Yield Debt Coming Due In The Next Few Years.” On December 3, 2019, CNBC reported: “Oil and gas companies are facing a slew of headwinds: stagnant commodity prices, along with supply, transportation and geopolitical challenges. This has given way to a rising number of out-of-court recapitalizations, formal bankruptcy cases, and the closing of debt and equity windows to oil and gas and oilfield service companies. A massive load of high yield debt coming due in the next few years was one of the main topics on a panel entitled “Crisis in the Oilpatch — Danger or Opportunity for Lenders and Distressed Investors?” at annual the Distressed Investing Conference. The industry is facing a wall of maturities that will start to hit in the second quarter of 2021, according to Todd Dittman of the privately-held alternative investment firm Angelo Gordon.” [CNBC, 12/3/2019]
By March, 2020 Many Oil Companies Were Struggling To Pay Interest On Existing Debt. On March 20, 2020, the New York Times reported: “The crisis has been a body blow to the American oil and gas industry. Already heavily indebted, many companies are now struggling to make interest payments on the debt they carry and are finding it challenging to raise new financing, which has gotten more expensive as traditional buyers of debt have vanished and risks to the oil industry have grown. Companies are increasingly turning to restructuring advisers to work through their finances, and the weaker businesses could end up filing for bankruptcy.” [New York Times, 3/20/2020]
The Main Street Lending Program Is The Next Major Business Lending Program To Launch From The CARES Act. On May 14, 2020, ProPublica reported: “The Main Street Lending Program is the next marquee effort of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which Congress passed in March. It is set to begin after weeks of criticism of the first, the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. While it’s too early to judge a program that hasn’t begun, the Main Street effort appears to have replicated some of the flaws of the paycheck program, and it has added some new ones.” [ProPublica, 5/14/2020]
The Main Street Lending Program Offers Secured And Unsecured Full-Recourse, Adjustable Rate Loans. According to a guide published by the US Chamber of Commerce: “The Main Street Lending Program offers three different secured or unsecured 4-year term loan options set at an adjustable rate of LIBOR (1 or 3 month) plus 300 basis points with principal and interest payments deferred for one year for eligible borrowers. Unlike Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Main Street loans are full-recourse loans and are not forgivable. All loans under the Main Street Lending Program must permit prepayment without penalty. All loans are made by private financial institutions but backed by the Federal Reserve.” [US Chamber of Commerce, 5/8/2020]
Oil & Gas Lobbying Group Asked The Fed To Make Changes To Loan Program To Allow Borrowers To Repay Existing Debt. On April 20, 2020, Reuters reported: “The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) asked the Fed to reconsider a provision that bars eligible borrowers from using the cash to repay other loan balances and requires borrowers to promise to repay the Fed before other debt of equal or lower priority, according to an April 15 letter seen by Reuters.” [Reuters, 4/20/2020]
- Senator Ted Cruz Requested Changes To Allow Oil Companies To Use CARES Loans To Refinance Pre-Existing Debt. On April 24, 2020, Senator Ted Cruz signed a letter to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the Secretary of the Treasury requesting changes to loan programs under the CARES act. Senator Cruz wrote: “The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act directed the Federal Reserve to provide immediate liquidity for small- and medium-sized businesses through the creation of the Main Street Lending Program (MSLP). I would like to commend the Federal Reserve for expeditiously creating both the Main Street New Loan Facility (MSNLF) and the Main Street Expanded Loan Facility (MSELF). Unfortunately, these programs are not sufficiently structured to support the urgent needs of companies who engage in or support oil exploration, production, transport, storage, and refining activities. For example, the MSNLF and MSELF both prohibit eligible borrowers, in this case oil and gas companies, from using loans to refinance pre-existing debt, and they place restrictions on the size of loans for businesses with large amounts of debt. Because of these restrictions, small- and medium-sized oil and gas companies, who desperately need liquidity because of massive demand disruption caused by COVID-19 and foreign oil aggressive overproduction and price discounts, are unable to access the short-term liquidity they need to avoid bankruptcy.” [Letter from Senator Ted Cruz to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, 4/24/2020]
Terms For The Main Street Loan Program Were Changed To Allow Borrowers To Refinance Existing Debt. On May 6, 2020, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported: “One part of the Main Street loan program now allows borrowers to refinance existing debt, scrapping a previous restriction. In addition, the program allows borrowers to pay down existing debt if ‘the debt or interest payment is mandatory and due,’ according to the Fed terms. ‘I requested that the Main Street Lending program would help the Appalachian natural gas industry, and that way your industry could benefit from these loans,’ Mr. Reschenthaler said during a webcast Tuesday hosted by Cabot Oil and Gas, a Houston, Texas-based energy producer with major operations in Pennsylvania. He said he was pleased with the changes made by the Fed, adding, ‘I will continue to advocate for the industry and make sure, that if we do have future phases of COVID-19 response, that this sector is included.’” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/6/2020]
Oversight Commission Member: “Here’s One Change The Treasury And The Fed Didn’t Make: They Didn’t Create Any Meaningful Requirement That Companies That Get Taxpayer-Backed Loans Keep Workers On Payroll.” Reacting to changes that the Federal Reserve made to COVID-19 loan programs, Bharat Ramamurti, a member of the COVID-19 Congressional Oversight Commission tweeted on April 30: “Here’s one change the Treasury and the Fed didn’t make: they didn’t create any meaningful requirement that companies that get taxpayer-backed loans keep workers on payroll. They also didn’t add any requirement that those companies try to rehire workers they’ve already fired.” [Bharat Ramamurti Twitter post 4/30/2020]
Federal Reserve Lending Programs Including The Main Street Lending Program To Begin By The End Of May. On May 19, 2020, Business Insider reported: “The four Federal Reserve lending programs that are not yet operational will begin issuing emergency loans by the end of the month, Chairman Jerome Powell said on Tuesday. The central-bank chief reiterated his plan to use the ‘full range of tools’ to aid the economy while testifying before the Senate banking committee. While the majority of the Fed’s aid programs were announced in March, several are still being worked on and are extremely complex to implement, Powell said. ‘We expect all of them to be stood up and ready to go by the end of this month,’ Powell said of the remaining programs. ‘People are working literally around the clock and have been for weeks.’” The article went on to list the four programs as the Main Street Lending Program, the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility, The municipal Liquidity Facility, and the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility. [Business Insider, 5/19/2020]
Federal Reserve Buying Junk Bonds
Under The CARES Act, The Federal Reserve Established Two Corporate Credit Facilities To Purchase Corporate Bonds Either Directly Or Through ETFs. According to the Federal Reserve’s Website: “The Federal Reserve established the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF) on March 23, 2020, to support credit to employers through bond and loan issuances. The PMCCF will provide companies access to credit so that they are better able to maintain business operations and capacity during the period of dislocations related to the pandemic. This facility is open to investment grade companies, as well as certain companies that were investment grade as of March 22, 2020. The Federal Reserve will establish a special purpose vehicle (SPV) through which the PMCCF will make loans and purchase bonds. The Treasury, using funds appropriated to the ESF through the CARES Act, will make an equity investment in the SPV. The SPV will be used for the PMCCF and the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility.” [Federal Reserve website last updated 4/28/2020]
The Federal Reserve Announced An Unprecedented Move to Buy Junk Bonds. On May 10, 2020, ProPublica reported: “The Fed didn’t stop with the most solid, safest corporate stalwarts. In early April, it also announced something unprecedented. The central bank said it would buy junk bonds, debt issued by fragile companies, many of which already have crushing debt loads. Sure enough, junk bonds roared back and their cousins, leveraged loans, revived. In doing so, the Fed backstopped the riskiest markets in the world. The most dangerous investments in the world, it should go without saying, are not owned by middle- and working-class Americans, to whom every politician pledges fealty. No, they are owned by the most risk-seeking investors in the world, the ones that need the highest returns: private equity firms and hedge funds.” [ProPublica, 5/10/2020]
The Federal Reserve’s Primary Market Facility Will Invest In “Fallen Angel” Bonds That Were Recently Downgraded To Junk Status. On April 9, 2020, Reuters reported: “The Fed’s $2.3 trillion package includes a primary market facility that specifies that companies recently downgraded from investment grade to the first tier of junk – so-called fallen angels – will be eligible for the program.” [Reuters, 4/9/2020]
More Than Half Of “Fallen Angel” Junk Bonds Are Energy Companies. On April 30, 2020, Reuters reported: “More Than Half Of “Fallen Angel” Corporate Bonds That Fell Below Investment Grade Are Energy Companies. “Energy companies have been hit hard as fuel demand worldwide has dropped by roughly 30%. More than half of the so-called fallen angels – companies downgraded from investment grade to junk – from the first quarter are in the energy sector, and the bonds of each of those traded higher on Thursday, with particularly notable moves in Occidental and Western Midstream.” [Reuters, 4/30/2020]
Energy Junk Bonds Rallied On The Federal Reserve’s Bond Strategy Announcement. On April 14, 2020, Financial Times reported: “Junk-rated US energy bonds rallied by the most in four years on Monday following measures to prop up credit markets by the Federal Reserve, as well as an agreement between oil-producing nations to drastically cut production. The average additional yield above Treasuries on low-rated energy bonds fell 1.16 percentage points on Monday to 16.21 per cent, marking the second-biggest daily drop on record for data going back to 2000, according to Ice Data Services. Movements on Tuesday were also positive in early trading.” [Financial Times, 4/14/2020]
Oil Companies Lobbied To Further Loosen The Federal Reserve’s Rules On Corporate Bond Purchases. On April 29, 2020, the Washington Post reported: “Petroleum producers and their allies in Congress are pressing the Federal Reserve for easier terms on loans and other aid the bank is throwing as a life preserver to ailing U.S. companies. They are asking for more flexible deadlines and more forgiving conditions on money being offered to businesses struggling to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic and economic slump. The Fed will help buy corporate bonds for the first time in its history as part of its response to the economic dip.” [Washington Post, 4/29/2020]
- The Federal Reserve Announced It Would Buy Junk Bonds That Were Previously Investment Grade Prior To March 22nd. On May 6, 2020, the New York Times reported: “To prevent markets from seizing up if a slew of such ratings downgrades hits simultaneously, pushing billions of dollars of corporate debt to sub-investment grade, the Federal Reserve said last month it would take the revolutionary step of buying junk bonds, so long as they had been deemed investment grade on March 22.” [New York Times, 5/6/2020]
- By Early March, Energy Companies Were The Biggest Issuers Of Junk Bonds. On March 8, 2020, Financial Times reported: “Energy companies are the biggest issuers of junk bonds, accounting for more than 11 per cent of the US high-yield market. Such issuers have credit ratings of BB or below, indicating that they are at higher risk of default than “investment-grade” issuers, rated BBB and above.” [Financial Times, 3/8/2020]
- 11 Senators Wrote To The Fed Chair Asking To Buy Bonds From Oil Companies That Already Had Weak Credit Ratings Before March 22nd. On April 21, 2020, 11 Republican Senators sent a letter to the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Jerome H. Powell. The senators wrote: “The Administration and the Federal Reserve have moved swiftly and decisively to save our economy from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for the U.S. oil and gas industry, the ill-timed OPEC production fight accelerated this calamity, causing credit rating downgrades and depriving access to capital and liquidity at far greater levels than first estimated. We call upon the Administration and the Federal Reserve to focus on this dire situation immediately and craft a swift response to head-off this growing emergency. In addition, we urge you to make changes to the Credit Facility Term Sheets released on April 9, 2020. Currently, the documents reference the date ‘March 22, 2020.’ The eligibility requirements include businesses must be rated at least BBB-/Baa3 as of March 22, 2020. It is unclear why this date was chosen, and we strongly believe it should change.” [Letter form 11 Senators to Chairman Jerome Powell, 4/21/2020]
- The Changes That Senators Requested For Loan Terms Would Have Specifically Benefitted Occidental Petroleum. On April 29, 2020, the Washington Post reported: “Last week, 11 Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Kevin Cramer (N.D.), wrote a letter to Powell asking him to tweak a deadline for two of its programs in a way that would help the major Permian Basin producer qualify for relief funds. According to the Fed’s current term sheets, a company needs to have a high enough bond score from two of the main ratings agencies as of March 22 for the Fed to back the purchase of its corporate bonds. The senators would like the deadline moved to early March — before the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries rocked global markets by not agreeing on oil production cuts in response to the pandemic. ‘Changing the date means company ratings would predate market manipulations from the Saudi Arabia and Russia oil dispute. Though the letter did not mention Occidental by name, the $13.6 billion Houston-based oil producer in particular would be prevented from partaking in the program under the proposed deadline. Two ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, downgraded its bonds right before March 22. ‘It’s pretty clear Occidental is the only one that benefits from this potential change,’ said Andrew Park, an analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, which advocates for banking reform.’ Cramer’s office said.” [Washington Post, 4/29/2020]
5/12/2020: The Federal Reserve Began Indirectly Propping Up The Junk Bond Market Through Secondary Market ETF Purchases, Primary Market Purchases To Begin Soon. On May 12, 2020, CNBC reported: “The Federal Reserve will be starting its long-awaited corporate bond program Tuesday amid a boom in debt issuance. The central bank will kick off its Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility, which is part of a history-making initiative in which it will purchase exchange-traded funds that track the corporate debt market. Asset management giant BlackRock will be running the operation under the New York Fed’s supervision. In particular, the facility will buy up ETFs that hold so-called fallen angel bonds of companies that formerly had been classified as investment grade but have been downgraded to speculative or junk, particularly in cases where those downgrades happened due to the coronavirus crisis. Its companion program, the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility, in which the Fed will be buying the actual bonds as well as syndicated loans, is scheduled to start soon.” [CNBC, 5/12/2020]
Federal Reserve Lending Programs Including The Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility To Begin By The End Of May. On May 19, 2020, Business Insider reported: “The four Federal Reserve lending programs that are not yet operational will begin issuing emergency loans by the end of the month, Chairman Jerome Powell said on Tuesday. The central-bank chief reiterated his plan to use the ‘full range of tools’ to aid the economy while testifying before the Senate banking committee. While the majority of the Fed’s aid programs were announced in March, several are still being worked on and are extremely complex to implement, Powell said. ‘We expect all of them to be stood up and ready to go by the end of this month,’ Powell said of the remaining programs. ‘People are working literally around the clock and have been for weeks.’” The article went on to list the four programs as the Main Street Lending Program, the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility, The municipal Liquidity Facility, and the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility. [Business Insider, 5/19/2020]
ROLLING BACK POLLUTION RULES
Rolling Back Regulations, Generally
The Guardian Headline: “In Shadow Of Pandemic, Trump Seizes Opportunity To Push Through His Agenda” On April 9, 2020, The Guardian reported: “The White House has advanced major environmental rollbacks and relaxed enforcement rules for polluters who say they are affected by the pandemic. The continued deregulation comes even as emerging research proves people in communities with more air pollution are more likely to die from Covid-19. Last month the US Environmental Protection Agency replaced the Obama administration’s biggest climate effort, weakening rules for auto companies to make new cars that could run on less gasoline. The announcement had long been expected in March, and the agency said it was under a tight legal deadline to complete the new regulation. Trump officials are also moving forward with rollbacks for toxic ash and mercury emissions from coal plants, and changes to how climate change is considered in environmental reviews for highways and pipelines.” [The Guardian, 4/9/2020]
Trump Signed An Order Giving Agencies Permission To Permanently Suspend Safeguards. On May 20, 2020, E&E’s Climatewire reported: “President Trump instructed federal agencies yesterday to search for regulations they could suspend or kill in hopes of jolting the U.S. economy out of its pandemic stupor. ‘The virus has attacked our nation’s economy as well as its health,’ the president proclaimed in an executive order that directs agency heads to look for rules ‘that may inhibit economic recovery.’ The order permits rules to be suspended temporarily or permanently to aid economic activity and job creation.” [E&E Climatewire, 5/20/2020]
Penalty Payments Waived For Pollution Violations
Trump Admin Waived Penalty Payments For Corporations In Settlements Over Pollution Violations. On May 27, 2020, The Guardian reported: “Ten corporations that agreed to a total of $56m in civil penalties for allegedly breaking environmental laws are not being required to make payments under a pause granted by the US government during the Covid-19 pandemic. The companies polluted air and water, including in communities already vulnerable to toxic pollution like East Chicago, Indiana, according to legal proceedings. They signed settlements with the government agreeing to pay fines without admitting liability but the justice department last month advised most of the companies of extensions in letters which were obtained by the government watchdog group Accountable.US via public records requests.” [The Guardian, 5/27/2020]
Air Emissions Monitoring
Trump Waiving Pollution Requirements During Coronavirus Pandemic. In March of 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported: “The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to waive compliance requirements and deadlines for a range of industries, including oil refiners, water utilities and sewage plants, as it seeks to help businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Trump administration officials. The biggest change likely will be to waive or postpone coming deadlines to switch to cleaner-burning summer-grade gasoline, according to administration officials and a business lobbyist.” [Wall Street Journal, 3/24/2019]
CBS News Headline: “’An Open License To Pollute’: Trump Administration Indefinitely Suspends Some Environmental Protection Laws During Coronavirus Pandemic.” On March 31st, 2020, CBS News reported: “The Trump administration introduced this week a sweeping relaxation of environmental laws and fines during the coronavirus pandemic. According to new guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), companies will largely be exempt from consequences for polluting the air or water during the outbreak. In a letter to all government and private sector partners on Thursday, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Susan Parker Bodine said that the agency does not expect power plants, factories or other companies to meet environmental standards and reporting of pollution during this time — and it won’t pursue penalties if companies break the rules.” The article later quoted Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA Administrator, who said “This is an open license to pollute. Plain and simple.” [CBS News, 3/31/2020]
Trump’s Dirty Cars Rule
Oil Industry Groups Ran A Stealth Campaign To Roll Back Car Emissions Standards. In December of 2018, the New York Times reported: “In Congress, on Facebook and in statehouses nationwide, Marathon Petroleum, the country’s largest refiner, worked with powerful oil-industry groups and a conservative policy network financed by the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch to run a stealth campaign to roll back car emissions standards, a New York Times investigation has found. The campaign’s main argument for significantly easing fuel efficiency standards — that the United States is so awash in oil it no longer needs to worry about energy conservation — clashed with decades of federal energy and environmental policy.” [New York Times, 12/13/2018]
Washington Post Headline: “Trump Administration Moves Forward With Looser Air Rules As Respiratory Disease Grips U.S.” On March 31st, 2020, the Washington Post reported: “The Trump administration is moving forward with easing restrictions on air pollution even as the novel coronavirus — and the deadly respiratory disease it causes — grips the country. Many of the moves were a long time coming. But the timing has incensed President Trump critics, who accuse the administration of taking steps that will reduce air quality at a time when scientists are beginning to consider whether pollution increases the risk of coronavirus infection and intensifies the symptoms of covid-19. ‘Air pollution reduces our body’s ability to fight infection,’ Moms Clean Air Force co-founder Dominique Browning said. ‘Pollution from power plants and trucks and cars is also one of the causes of the underlying heart and lung problems that make people more vulnerable to covid-19.’” [Washington Post, 3/31/2020]
American Lung Association: Particle Pollution From Vehicle Exhaust And Power Plants Can Cause Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, And Asthma Attacks. According to the American Lung Association: “Lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer of both men and women in the U.S. When you think of risk factors for lung cancer, what comes to mind? Most of us think about the risk associated with smoking cigarettes, but did you know that air pollution can also cause lung cancer? Overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution in the outdoor air we breathe—like that coming from vehicle exhaust, coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources—can cause lung cancer. Particle pollution increases the risk of dying early, heart disease and asthma attacks, and it can also interfere with the growth and function of the lungs.” [American Lung Association, 6/21/2016]
NHTSA: Under Trump’s Rollback Proposal, “Emissions Of Criteria Air Pollutants Increase Across All Alternatives, With Some Exceptions.” “The EIS provides findings for air quality impacts for 2025, 2035, and 2050. In general, emissions of criteria air pollutants increase across all alternatives, with some exceptions. The changes in emissions reflect the complex interactions among the tailpipe emissions rates of the various vehicle types, the technologies assumed to be incorporated by manufacturers in response to the CAFE standards, upstream emissions rates, the relative proportions of gasoline and diesel in total fuel consumption reductions, and changes in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) from the rebound effect. In addition, the action alternatives would result in increased incidence of PM2.5-related adverse health impacts due to the emissions increases.” [NHTSA, Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Year 2021–2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks, Pg. S-7, July 2018]
Washington Post Headline: “EPA Staff Warned That Mileage Rollbacks Had Flaws. Trump Officials Ignored Them.” On May 19, 2020, the Washington Post reported: “In its rush to roll back the most significant climate policy enacted by President Barack Obama — mileage standards designed to reduce pollution from cars — the Trump administration ignored warnings that its new rule has serious flaws, according to documents shared with The Washington Post.” The Post noted later in the article: “The documents, however, reveal that EPA staff were sidelined as they warned that the revised standards had several defects. Commenting on the preamble’s assertion that the government’s ‘action will result in reductions in climate change-related impacts and most air pollutants compared to the absence of regulation,’ EPA staffers wrote in an internal document in February that ‘this is not correct’ from the agency’s perspective. ‘The action revising the [greenhouse gas] standards will result in increased climate impacts and air pollution emissions compared to the existing standards,’ agency staff wrote in the margins.” [Washington Post, 5/19/2020]
Impacts Of Particulate Air Pollution On COVID-19 Patients
Harvard Public Health Study: Exposure To Particulate (PM2.5) Air Pollution Linked To Increased Risk Of Death From Coronavirus. A study recently published by researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded: “We found that an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate (95% confidence interval [CI]: 2%, 15%). The results were statistically significant and robust to secondary and sensitivity analyses. A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Despite inherent limitations of to the ecological study design, our results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis. The data and code are publicly available so our analyses can be updated routinely.” [Xiao Wu et al, “Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States.” medRxiv 2020.04.05.20054502 – Updated 4/24/2020]
- Headline: “New Research Links Air Pollution to Higher Coronavirus Death Rates.” [New York Times, 4/7/2020]
- Headline: “Air Pollution Linked To Increased Risk Of Death From COVID-19 In U.S., Harvard Study Finds” [Newsweek, 4/8/2020]
American Lung Association: “Particle Pollution Increases The Risk Of Dying Early, Heart Disease And Asthma Attacks, And It Can Also Interfere With The Growth And Function Of The Lungs.” According to the American Lung Association: “Lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer of both men and women in the U.S. When you think of risk factors for lung cancer, what comes to mind? Most of us think about the risk associated with smoking cigarettes, but did you know that air pollution can also cause lung cancer? Overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution in the outdoor air we breathe—like that coming from vehicle exhaust, coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources—can cause lung cancer. Particle pollution increases the risk of dying early, heart disease and asthma attacks, and it can also interfere with the growth and function of the lungs.” [American Lung Association, 6/21/2016]
- American Lung Association: “The Lungs Are A Major Target Of COVID-19” According to an FAQ page published by the American Lung Association: “The lungs are a major target of COVID-19. When the virus is inhaled into the lungs, it invades the tissues, causing inflammation and breathing problems. If the infection gets worse it can develop into pneumonia. In a small number of severe cases, patients can develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) that will require them to be placed on a ventilator for oxygen. If too much of the lung is damaged and not enough oxygen is supplied to the rest of the body, respiratory failure could lead to organ failure and death. The recovery rate and consequences from a severe COVID-19 will vary person to person but there may be some long term damage to the lungs.” [American Lung Association, 4/24/2020]
LIMITING PUBLIC HEALTH SCIENCE
November 2019: Trump’s EPA Was Preparing To Limit Scientific And Medical Research That Can Be Used To Determine Public Health Regulations. In November of 2019, the New York Times reported: “The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking. A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently.” [New York Times, 11/11/2019]
March 2020: Trump’s EPA Expanded A Proposed Rule To Limit Public Health Science. On March 17, 2020, Bloomberg reported: A proposal to expand the scope of the EPA’s much-debated ‘secret science’ rule beyond its use in regulations will be published Wednesday in the Federal Register. The underlying rule proposal would prevent the agency from considering scientific studies that aren’t or can’t be made public in rulemaking. The proposed supplement expands the proposal so that it would apply to ‘influential scientific information,’ even if that information isn’t used in writing regulations.” [Bloomberg, 3/17/2020]
White House Revisions To “Secret Science” Rule Showed An Effort To Find Legal Authority To Do What The Administration Wanted To Do. On March 10, 2020, The White House has released a working copy of EPA’s latest controversial “secret science” proposal replete with red edits. The document shows there is a battle going on within the administration over what language to use on a rule that aims to retool the scientific research underpinning EPA policy.” The article went on to report: “It is unclear whether OIRA staff ordered the changes or whether EPA requested them during the three-month review period. What is clear is many changes were legal in nature, noted Stuart Shapiro, a former regulatory analyst at the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Specifically, White House officials have tried to find the legal authority to underpin the agency’s rewrite of the science guidelines. Critics say they lack the authority — period.” [E&E Greenwire, 3/10/2020]
DRILLING LEASE SALES & ROYALTIES
The Trump Administration Proceeded With A Gulf Of Mexico Oil & Gas Lease Sale – Despite A Global Crude Glut During The Coronavirus Pandemic – Netting The Lowest Returns In Years. On March 19, 2020, E&E News reported: “A federal oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday delivered the lowest returns of the Trump presidency amid a historic global glut of crude due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The sale brought in less than $100 million, the lowest total revenue from a Gulf sale under the current five-year offshore oil and gas program run by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), and far below the Trump administration’s high point of $244 million from a sale in March 2019.” [E&E News Energywire, 3/19/2020]
AP Headline: “Trump Administration Cuts Royalty Rates For Oil And Gas.” On May 21, 2020, the Associated Press reported: “The Trump administration has started giving energy companies temporary breaks on royalties and rent they pay to extract oil and gas from leases on public lands because of the coronavirus pandemic. The move drew quick criticism as a handout to industry that will mean less money for state governments. A Democratic lawmaker called for an investigation into whether the breaks were justified. Government data shows companies in Utah receiving steep cuts in the standard 12.5% royalty rate, to as low as 2.5% of the value of the oil and gas they produce. More reductions are expected in the coming days in other states with oil and gas activity on federal lands, primarily in the western U.S.” [Associated Press, 5/21/2020]
Reuters Headline: “Trump admin slaps solar, wind operators with retroactive rent bills.” On May 18, 2020, Reuters reported: “The Trump administration has ended a two-year rent holiday for solar and wind projects operating on federal lands, handing them whopping retroactive bills at a time the industry is struggling with the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, according to company officials. The move represents a multi-million-dollar hit to an industry that has already seen installation projects canceled or delayed by the global health crisis, which has cut investment and dimmed the demand outlook for power. It also clashes with broader government efforts in the United States to shield companies from the worst of the economic turmoil through federal loans, waived fees, tax breaks and trimmed regulatory enforcement.” [Reuters, 5/18/2020]
4/21/2020: Oil Prices Fell To Negative $37/Barrel Amid Global Oil Glut. On April 21, 2020, Reuters reported: “Hundreds of millions of barrels of crude have gushed into storage worldwide in the past two months as the coronavirus-related lockdowns wiped out around a third of global oil demand. With oil depots that normally store crude oil onshore filling to the brim and supertankers mostly taken, energy companies are desperate for more space. The alternative is to pay buyers to take their U.S. crude after futures plummeted to a negative $37 a barrel on Monday.” [Reuters, 4/21/2020]