Climate Politics/Capitol Light (8)

June 13, 2019

Volume 1, June 12, 2019, Issue 8

Renewables to feel the burn. A court ruling will allow PG&E to end as much as $42 billion in existing clean energy power-purchase agreements, which could have large implications for NextEra Energy Inc., Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and other companies. It is sure to complicate further California’s ability to reduce its statewide emissions. Judge Dennis Montali of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California said he disagreed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s assertion of authority over the utility’s contract choices. ( The Wall Street Journal)

Rare and inaccessible. Rising trade tensions between the U.S. and China have sparked worries about the 17 exotic-sounding rare earth minerals needed for high-tech products like robotics, drones and electric cars. (AP News)

Trash talkWhen Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler goes to Japan this week to meet with other environment ministers, action on climate change won’t be the priority. Instead, Wheeler plans to talk a lot about the tons of trash floating in the ocean he just flew over.

Wheeler, in an interview, called the debris clogging the ocean one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns. China is the top contributor of plastic pollutants. (Washington Post)

Wheeler may have an ulterior motive—beyond dodging the issue of climate change. The meeting is thought to give the Trump administration a new opportunity to berate China in hopes of bringing them to the tariff negotiating table—or just because the administration likes trashing others with their talk.

Like what? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Washington Times:   “We will do the things necessary as the climate changes,” Mr. Pompeo said in an interview with The Washington Times this week, during which he staunchly defended President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord reached in 2015 and chastised Democrats for making exaggerated declarations about the climate. (Washington Times)

Give me the fracking loan–please. The companies behind the U.S. fracking boom are turning to asset sales, drilling partnerships, and other alternative financings to supplement their cash flow. These forms of funding often come with higher interest rates or carry other downsides, such as giving outside investors a hefty share of future oil and gas production but are gaining traction as drillers face dwindling access to traditional sources of capital.

NIMBY, you won’t. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham said she opposes putting the interim storage of high-level radioactive waste in her state. In a letter Friday to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Kristine Svinicki, Lujan- Grisham said that such interim storage would “pose significant and unacceptable risks to New Mexicans, our environment and economy.”

The nuclear option. An aide to Bloomberg told Axios the former New York mayor and climate advocate isn’t taking a “hard stance” on nuclear. “We’ll pursue all of the options available, including nuclear,” the aide said.

Whatever works. In 2011, when the Sierra Club and then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the Beyond Coal campaign, coal accounted for 42 percent of America’s power generation. Today, that figure is closer to 25 percent.

Now, the pair are aiming to finish the job. Bloomberg announced he will spend $500 million to retire America’s remaining coal plants by 2030, halt construction of new natural gas plants and elect climate champions to public office as part of a new Beyond Carbon initiative.

Some doubts are now being raised about what or who was really responsible for closing coal plants. Hans Daniels, the CEO at Doyle Trading Consultants, argued that the group’s efforts would not have been as successful without fracking, which turned gas into a viable alternative to coal.

“They have certainly had an impact, but I think their impact has paled compared to cold, hard economics,” Daniels said. “Natural gas is truly the fuel that has put the dagger into the heart of coal.” (E&E News)

Still, $500 million and more climate champions can’t help but have an impact.

Not enough gas. Natural gas, which is becoming the world’s dominant energy, emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal. That’s why it’s emerging as a good-enough-for-now solution to climate change. (Axios)

Reliance on natural gas as the bridge to a zero-carbon economy carries the problem of building out an infrastructure that serves only to maintain reliance on a fossil fuel. Once companies sink their money into the buildout, they are not going to go gently into that good night.

Sure, now that you’re in catbird’s seat. EPA says it can issue federal permits for projects, including pipelines, regardless of whether states raise questions about impacts to climate change or air pollution.

Trump’s most recent executive order is hobbling states’ powers to block natural gas pipelines and other energy infrastructure using Clean Water Act permits.

Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking minority member on the Environmental and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that he is convinced EPA and the president are violating “congressional intent.”

“The president’s executive order and EPA’s new guidance are indefensible and defy the clear intention of Congress,” Carper stated.

Nevertheless, Republicans see EPA’s guidance as blocking states from abusing their authority under the law. Senator Murkowski (R-AK) chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the EPA guidance balances states’ authority over water resources while promoting responsible development of energy resources.

The guidance will also “reduce abuse” of Clean Water Act permits to block infrastructure needed to provide reliable and affordable energy, Murkowski added.

Whether auto emissions or pipelines, the Trump administration will continue its efforts to usurp the power of states. In this battle, efforts to deregulate the environment trump the long-held Republican position of states’ rights over federal interventions.

It’s unclear whether Democrats will call them on it. For the entirety of Obama’s years in the White House, climate deniers and allied corporate interests lambasted him and Democrats for their proposed clean air and water regulations.

And one in the ChamberUS Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and 22 of their Democratic colleagues are challenging the US Chamber of Commerce to accept that human-caused climate change is real and warrants immediate action–urging members of Congress to follow suit.

In a letter sent to Thomas Donohue, President, and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Senators called on the largest lobbying organization in the country to begin advocating for an existing commonsense resolution that calls for urgent government action on climate change.
In the press announcement the senators pointed out that While many member companies of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pursue the reduction of carbon emissions as part of their business models, the Chamber has marshaled its considerable lobbying resources on behalf of those same companies to oppose congressional, executive, and judicial actions that would meaningfully address climate change. ( Senator Whitehouse press release)

The Chamber has indicated in prior press releases that “inaction on climate is not an option.” Since the 2018 midterm elections and the rise of climate change on the Democrats’ priority list, the Chamber–like a number of Republicans who will be running for re-election–have taken the tack of admitting the climate is changing. Their solution has been to address the problem through innovative technologies yet to be found—supporting research over-regulation and immediate action. See also my commentary Beware Republicans Bearing Environmental Gifts for more detail on the dynamic unfolding in Congress.

Say what? Confronted by party activists in Florida over the weekend, DNC Chair Tom Perez defended the committee’s decision by saying that it was “not practical” to hold a debate on a “single issue” like climate change.

He said the candidates knew the rules going in at the start of the campaign, which included not devoting any of the DNC’s 12 sanctioned debates to a single topic. In a Trumpesque-moment, Perez added:  And, frankly, as someone who worked for Barack Obama, the most remarkable thing about him was his tenacity to multitask, and a president must be able to multitask.” 

Perez has also indicated that he has informed the moderators of the debates that they should include questions on climate.

Say it’s so Joe. “That’s what we should be doing,” the former vice president told a Greenpeace activist on a rope line after a speech here. “I’m all in, man. Take a look at what I’m talking about – and by the way, the first climate change plan in the history of the Congress? Biden.” (Washington Post)

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. There’s support within the DNC for a climate debate as well.

FWIW—I anticipate the debate becoming a litmus test for the DNC and the Party. Although I tend to be against most litmus tests, e.g., where do you support the Markey/Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal Resolutions, I think the debate is a legitimate issue. Certainly, there’s a lot to be said about the climate crisis, and the position Trump and many Republicans have chosen to espouse.

Should Perez prevail, I’m betting Governor Inslee, and other of the candidates for the nomination will hold their own debate—bad optics for the Party, but good ones for the candidates.

 Gotcha ya. Tonko, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on climate change, warned his fellow Democrats Monday to avoid “getting trapped in rhetoric” on the Green New Deal instead of developing a comprehensive plan to address it.

Speaking on the Green New Deal panel at the Edison Electric Institute’s conference he said Democrats should “develop a plan of attack” so when the political climate is more climate-friendly they’re “ready to go.”

Tonko repeated his call for an “economy-wide carbon price” as the best policy to address climate change, but he acknowledged it would take “a while to develop” given Republican opposition.

The Congressman has not endorsed the Green New Deal. Instead, he’s introducing his own framework to address climate change that includes many of the initiatives mentioned above.

Short and to the point. More than 75 conservative groups and leaders sent a letter to Congress, united in opposition to any carbon tax:

Dear Members of Congress,

We oppose any carbon tax. A carbon tax raises the cost of heating your home in the winter and cooling your home in the summer. It raises the cost of filling your car. A carbon tax increases the cost of everything Americans buy and lowers Americans’ effective take-home pay. A carbon tax increases the power, cost, and intrusiveness of the government in our lives.

//signed// 75 plus.

The battle between “seriously conservative” and “establishment” Republicans on carbon taxes is really a battle for the Republican Party. The Climate Leadership Council and a heady group of establishment Republicans and industry stalwarts like ExxonMobil, MetLife, Johnson and Johnson, GM, First Solar, Exelon, Allianz, et al., are girding themselves to  head-to-head with groups like Americans for Tax Reform, the American Energy Alliance, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

It will be interesting to see who wins—or if there even is a winner after all the dust starts to settle after the 2020 elections. At the moment, the battle tilts towards the Trumplicans—as always, time will tell. The only sure thing is that no one will emerge unscathed.

Hoping for a different outcome.  The New York Times is reporting that even as floods worsen with climate change, fewer people insure against disaster. (See here for more information on the national flood insurance program.)

The real insanity here is not in failing to pay for insurance; it’s rebuilding back in the path of the next disaster. Rather than using federal funds to rebuild homes in harm’s way, federal programs need to help get people out of harm’s way.

Floodplains are called floodplains for a reason. With the climate changing the situation only gets worse. How many times should a house be rebuilt before it’s realized that there are no different outcomes? It is just one of the sad realities of the climate crisis.

Drinking the best, burning the rest. The US Environmental Protection Agency is close to releasing its proposal for how much biofuel refiners must blend into the US transportation fuel supply next year. (S&P Global Platts)

The coming corn wars. The legal challenge from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) association escalated a battle between the oil and corn industries over the nation’s biofuel policy, which requires refiners to blend biofuels like corn-based ethanol into their gasoline, often at great expense. (Reuters)

Batting zero. More than two and a half years into the Trump Administration, no climate change related regulatory rollback brought before the courts has yet survived a legal challenge. (Columbia Law School)

For the Trump administration and its core denialist supporters, it’s not really about winning in court. It’s about getting into court and letting important environmental protections languish in legal purgatory. I’ve said before success for them is a delay—sooner or later, the public will demand the federal government to regulate the environment. Sadly these days, it seems to be later rather than sooner.

Still brewing. The final rule (CAFE) has yet to go to OMB, where major rulemakings usually take at least 60 days, meaning even if the rule went to OMB today, it could take until mid-August to be finalized. Add in a few months to sue and brief out a fight over a judicial stay and automakers — who last week urged Trump to issue a more moderate rollback — could be looking at significant uncertainty through the fall about the standard for the model year 2021 vehicles scheduled to hit dealerships next summer. (Politico)

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee said it planned a June 20 hearing on the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze fuel efficiency standards at 2020 levels through 2026. (Reuters) (See here for additional background)

As big an issue as the regulations are, the likelihood that the final rule will also deny California its waiver to set a stricter standard may prove to be bigger in terms of the relationship of states to the federal government when it comes to environmental regulation.

They would know.  The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hosted what amounted to the most awkward Environmental Protection Agency reunion ever. Former EPA administrators from the Obama, George W. Bush and Reagan administrations came together to criticize the agency’s current direction under President Trump, calling for Congress to exercise its oversight powers to ensure the agency is fulfilling its obligation to protect the air, water, and human health.

“This administration, from the beginning, has made no secret of its intention to essentially dismantle the EPA,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who oversaw the agency under George W. Bush. The agency has attempted to roll back several regulations on environmental issues such as fuel standardsmercury air toxic standardsmethane emissions, and offshore drilling.

“There is no doubt in my mind under the Trump administration the EPA is retreating from its mission,” Whitman said. (Grist)

The guy before you had it right. A group of Republicans has urged President Trump to send an Obama-era climate agreement to the Senate for approval.

The Kigali Amendment — named for the Rwandan capital where it was finalized in 2016 — would phase out the potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

The goal of the amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is to avert enough emissions from air conditioning units and refrigerators to reduce warming by 0.5 degree Celsius (0.9 degrees) Fahrenheit) by 2100.

However, the agreement requires ratification in the Senate by a two-thirds majority. In a letter dated June 4, 13 Republican senators asked Trump to send it their way. In part, the letter read: By sending this amendment to the Senate, you will help secure America’s place as the global leader in several manufacturing industries, and in turn give American workers an advantage against their competitors in the international marketplace. (E&E News)

Now hear this. The House Budget Committee was to discuss the costs of climate change and its possible solutions. Republican committee members had a different idea. They used their time to bash the Green New Deal—again.

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), the ranking vice chairman of the committee, started things off by noting they “can’t have a hearing about climate change without taking a detailed look at the favored proposal among our colleagues on the left: the Green New Deal.”

Johnson went on to say “How can we have a serious discussion about climate change on this committee without addressing the primary plank of the platform that you and your colleagues have offered, the Green New Deal, to resolve climate change?” (E&E News)

Republicans have set their strategy of controlling the climate dialogue by bringing the Green New Deal and talking about no more meat, no more planes, and socialism. Democrats appear to be unable to defend against what are essentially 30-second soundbites.

It is one reason—perhaps the best one—that a Democratic candidate debate on climate is a good idea. A significant part of the problem is the fact that when it comes to the Green New Deal, it remains a resolution of aspirational goals rather than an actual substantive plan for a legislative strategy.

Is it time for an overhaul already?  A group of Senate Republicans is looking to restart their efforts to overhaul a 1970s law originally meant to introduce more renewable energy into the grid.

Legislation led by Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) looks to “modernize” the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act to better reflect the market realities of cheap natural gas and more affordable renewable power technology. The law requires utilities to purchase power from certain small producers called qualifying facilities.

“When the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) was enacted in 1978, energy markets were drastically different,” Barrasso said. “Today, a significant amount of all new power added to the grid comes from renewable energy resources.”

Democrats have remained skeptical about changing PURPA, especially as they look to unleash more renewables on the electric grid to help reduce carbon emissions from the electric power sector. Moreover, critics of reform legislation say it would benefit large power producers.

One for the ages. Theresa May has sought to cement some legacy in the weeks before she steps down as prime minister by enshrining in law a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so.

The commitment, to be made in an amendment to the Climate Change Act laid in parliament on Wednesday, would make the UK the first member of the G7 group of industrialized nations to legislate for net zero emissions, Downing Street said.

Environmental groups welcomed the goal but expressed disappointment that the plan would allow the UK to achieve it in part through international carbon credits, something Greenpeace said would “shift the burden to developing nations.”

Surprise! The oil giant Mobil sought to make tax-exempt donations to leading universities, civic groups and arts program to promote the company’s interests and undermine environmental regulation, according to internal documents from the early 1990s obtained by the Guardian.

The documents shine a light on the ways corporations have used their money to buy influence, amass prestige, and shape public policy through grants to academic programs and advocacy groups.

The documents come to light as ExxonMobil, formed when Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, is now facing investigations by multiple state attorneys general over claims it failed to communicate known climate crisis-related risks to investors and the public.

The foundation wrote that its grants for not-for-profits could help Mobil fight environmental regulation, fund scientists whose work had been “favorably received by the industry” and prepare Mobil to defend itself against lawsuits following oil spills and industrial accidents.

What’s wrong with this picture?  The writer of HBO’s acclaimed drama Chernobyl has urged tourists to “respect” the victims of the 1986 nuclear disaster after some Instagram “influencers” staged “glamour” shots at the exclusion zone in Ukraine.

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American environmental regulation, American politics