Volume 1  May 28, 2019  Issue 3

Both the House and Senate are out on scheduled district workdays and will not return until June 4, 2019.

Who’ll sweep the forest floors now? The Trump administration announced on May 24th it will be killing a Forest Service program that trains disadvantaged young people for wildland fire fighting and other jobs in rural communities, laying off 1,100 employees — believed to be the largest number of federal job cuts in a decade.

The Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers enroll more than 3,000 students a year in rural America. The soon-to-close centers — in Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, Washington state, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oregon — include hundreds of jobs in some of President Trump’s political strongholds. In Congress, members of both parties objected to the plan.

The drawdown of the program, starting in September, will result in the largest layoffs of civil servants since the military’s base realignment and closures of 2010 and 2011, federal personnel experts said. Nine of the centers will close, and another 16 will be taken over by private companies and possibly states.

The announced killing of the program shows once again that Trump and his administration seem at times to have nothing in common with each other. Wasn’t it Trump who has vowed to help rural residents find new well-paying job opportunities? Moreover, wasn’t it the same Donald who trumped up a story about the cleanliness of Finland’s forest floors being the reason forest fires are not a problem there?

Don’t drink the water. An aggressive push by Congress to pass bipartisan legislation addressing cancer-causing chemicals that are leaching into the water supply is setting the stage for a fight with the Trump administration.

The chemicals, commonly abbreviated as PFAS, are used in items ranging from food wrappers and Teflon pans to raincoats and firefighting foam. However, studies have found that as they break down and find their way into drinking water, they can cause a variety of negative health effects.

PFAS has been linked with kidney and thyroid cancer along with high cholesterol and other illnesses. Contamination has spread to 43 states, and a 2015 study found that 98 percent of Americans tested now have the chemical in their blood.

The bipartisan push to tackle the problem is setting up a clash with agencies, in particular, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Pentagon, that have been resistant to regulating the chemicals.

The Magnificent Seven. Seven former EPA administrators have offered to help Congress with oversight of the agency. Bill Ruckelshaus, Lee Thomas, William Reilly, Carol Browner, Christine Todd Whitman, Lisa Jackson, and Gina McCarthy signed the letter. Several of them have previously been publicly critical of EPA since President Trump took office.

The former administrators urged the lawmakers in the letter to affirm the “bipartisan” mission of EPA; focus on “the most significant” public health and environmental risks; support “rigorous consensus science, economics and engineering” in EPA decisions; concentrate on “substantive” issues dealing with policy, management and enforcement; and look ahead to establish a foundation for better environmental management.

“We are willing and eager to be a resource on any number of pressing issues under your consideration. There are many areas ripe for oversight and consistent with the suggestions mentioned above,” they said.

No relief in sight. Another House Republican has thwarted attempts to pass a bipartisan disaster aid package, further delaying $19 billion in emergency relief and frustrating lawmakers whose states were hit by devastating hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding.

Representative Massie (R) objected to the bill’s passage during a voice vote and demanded that the vote be held after the House returns from recess next week — making it all but impossible that President Donald Trump can sign the package before early June.

The objection by some House conservatives is now the sole hurdle to clearing the $19 billion package, which had been stalled for nearly six months until an eleventh-hour deal in the Senate on Thursday, May 23rd.

They just couldn’t cut it: The Democratic-led House Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 along party lines to push forward $37.28 billion in funds for the two agencies. It was an increase of $7.24 billion over President Trump’s 2020 requests, which included deep proposed cuts for both agencies.

“This Interior-Environment funding bill rejects cuts proposed by the Trump administration that would have put the interests of polluters over people,” said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over interior and the environment.

Trump originally proposed gutting the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and cutting Interior’s by 14 percent. It was the third year in a row that the White House had proposed dramatic cuts to both departments, which appropriators have resoundingly rejected.

Republicans on the committee complained that Democrats were moving ahead with bills while the House, Senate, and White House have not yet agreed to overall spending levels, despite some progress in a Tuesday meeting.

Lines in the bill could also make it harder for the government to engage in new oil and gas lease sales. A part of the bill would deny fossil fuel leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) if bidding doesn’t generate at least $500 million, half of the expected revenue. A GOP amendment to strip out the provisions was voted down.

Who said they couldn’t play well together? U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) introduced the Launching Energy Advancement and Development through Innovations for Natural Gas (LEADING) Act.

The bill would spur research and development of carbon capture technology for natural gas power plants by requiring DOE to establish a program to develop cost-effective carbon capture technologies, while also including participation by the national laboratories, universities, and the private sector.

S. 1685 joins other bipartisan carbon capture proposals including the USE IT and Act (S. 383)  and Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology Act of 2019 (S. 1201)

When the wind won’t blow, and the sun don’t shine: Sen. Susan Collins  (R-ME) introduced a bipartisan bill Wednesday to bolster energy storage, an emerging technology geared at solving renewable energy’s most persistent problem: using it when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

The Better Energy Storage Technology Act or “BEST Act” directs the Energy Department to establish a research, development, and demonstration program for grid-scale energy storage.

The bill authorizes $300 million over five years for the Energy Department to partner with the private sector on building at least five grid-scale energy storage demonstration projects by September 2023 that can provide power to the grid for 10 to 100 hours and operate for 20 years.

Co-sponsors of the legislation include Senators Gardner (R-CO), McSally (R-AZ), Heinrich (D-NM), Smith (D-MN), Coons (D-DE) and King (I-ME).

Isn’t it beyond their sell-by date? Senator Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, weighed in on the question of extending tax credits for wind and solar that is being considered by bipartisan task forces established by Senator Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Finance Committee and its ranking member Ron Wyden (D-OR). (see Issue 1)

Murkowski asked members of the Energy and Natural Resource Committee during an open hearing: “Are we beyond the time when wind and solar — that have enjoyed the benefits of these tax credits for these many years — no longer need them?” Murkowski commented. “We had a deal, we were phasing things out, but now there is a lot of discussion.”

The task forces will focus on a total of 42 provisions that expired or will expire, between the end of 2017 and the end of 2019. For energy, the group would work to establish a level playing field for technologies beyond a year-by-year extension decision, which can get kicked down the road, given shifting Congressional priorities, thus reducing certainty among investors.

Judicial happenings–

Wall just see about that. On May 24th a federal judge blocked Trump from building sections of his long-sought border wall with money secured under his declaration of a national emergency.

US District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. immediately halted the administration’s efforts to redirect military-designated funds for wall construction. His order applies to two projects, scheduled to begin as early as Saturday, to replace 51 miles of fence in two areas on the Mexican border.

Gilliam issued the ruling after hearing arguments last week in two cases. California and 19 other states brought one lawsuit; the Sierra Club and a coalition of communities along the border brought the other. His ruling was the first of several lawsuits against Trump’s controversial decision to bypass the normal appropriations process to pay for his long-sought wall.

Approximately $1 billion was blocked. The money was to come from funding the White House planned to transfer from the Department of Defense under the president’s national emergency plan, according to a preliminary ruling. In addition, the Trump administration cannot construct a barrier in areas near Yuma, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas.

The ruling from Haywood Gilliam, Jr., of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California, however, does not prevent the Trump administration from allocating funds from their other sources.

Regulatory affairs

The leased of the problem. Interior is on track to complete a lease sale for oil exploration areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Joe Balash told a Washington energy conference Thursday. The department will complete a final environmental impact statement by August, after which Balash said Interior expects to “complete a lease sale in the 10-02 area this calendar year.”

Diminishing the impact of impact statements. The Trump administration will complete a draft proposal to streamline environmental permitting for big infrastructure projects by next month according to an administration official.  Completion of the draft will mark a key step in its controversial effort to cut red tape for industry over the objections of conservationists.

The draft rule to reform NEPA would be sent to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review in June. It is unclear how fast OIRA will be able to turn the rule around.

President Donald Trump kickstarted the effort to reform the bedrock environmental law for the first time in 40 years with an executive order in 2017, saying the federal environmental review process for major projects was overly complex and had led to unnecessary delays.

The 2017 order required CEQ to carry out two main tasks: require that one federal agency, instead of multiple agencies, take the lead on a NEPA review; and set a goal of completing the process within two years.

The administration has had a dismal record when it comes to meeting NEPA requirements. Efforts to skirt around NEPA rules have been soundly rebuffed by the courts. Whatever the administration’s final proposed rule, it will be challenged in the courts.

Democratic contenders for the presidency

Your money’s no good here. Democratic contender Julián Castro said Thursday he has signed onto the “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge, swearing off money from oil executives, lobbyists or PACs. Castro tweeted that his campaign has refused contributions from PACs, corporations, and lobbyists since Day One, but is now refusing contributions from oil, gas and coal executives “so you know my priorities are with the health of our families, climate and democracy.”

The Sunrise Movement and other progressive climate advocate organizations consider the pledge a requirement for their support.

No moonshine. Democratic presidential hopeful Klobuchar proposes revamping EPA ethanol rules governing how small refineries are exempted from the nation’s biofuel laws, a proposal aimed at boosting her standing in the politically critical state of Iowa.

Say it ain’t so Joe:  Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to unveil his climate change plan any day now, and he’s under increasing pressure from environmentalists who want him to take a strong position against fossil fuels.

The former Delaware senator has touted his decades-long environmental record in Congress and the Obama White House, but progressives argue that his approach to climate change is outdated and his record is anything but spotless.

Biden’s position on climate could open him up to further attacks from the left wing of the party and create an obstacle to winning the party’s nomination, especially since the environment is the main concern for liberal voters.

According to media reports, his plan’s main goals will consist of keeping the U.S. in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and reversing the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era environmental rules.

Biden has denied the characterization. “You never heard me say middle of the road. I’ve never been middle of the road on the environment,” Biden told reporters in response to the criticism.

A final note—of caution

A vote for the environment or against the establishment?  Green parties’ surprisingly strong showing in elections for the 751-seat European Parliament has raised hopes — particularly among young voters — that global warming and other environmental issues will get more serious consideration on the continent.

Provisional results Monday showed the left-leaning Greens coming in fourth in the balloting with 69 seats, an increase of 17 from the last election, five years ago. Perhaps more significantly, the results showed how environmental concerns could transcend the political issues that dominate most European Union elections.

Although the Greens made a strong showing in the elections, it’s not at all clear that the votes were in support of climate action. The fact that far-right groups like France’s Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France, Salvini’s La Lega in Italy, Vlam Belang’s in Belgium, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in the UK, suggest that rejection of establishment politicians is still alive and well throughout EU. As I’ve written before, populism is bad for the environment.

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Lead image: https://unsplash.com/@elevenphotographs