THE LIGHTBULB

Between the very little Attorney General Jeff Sessions was willing to say about his conversations with President Trump and the essentially nothing Senate Republicans were willing to say about their health-care bill, there was one revealing bit of testimony on Capitol Hill late last week -- from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

On Thursday, Pruitt told a House subcommittee that the EPA is not reviewing California's lone-in-the-country authority to set air-quality standards tougher than those found elsewhere in the nation.

For months, California politicians, led by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown (D), have aggressively positioned the state as a bulwark against the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda -- for example, striking their own climate pacts with Canada and Mexico.

Since January, one cause for concern among Democrats and environmentalists is a longstanding waiver, written into the 1970 Clean Air Act, that allowed California to impose its own emissions rules for automobiles.

When that federal air pollution law was drafted, smog so choked Los Angeles that California asked Congress and its one-time senator, then President Richard Nixon, to carve out room for the state to set even more stringent air-pollution rules for automobiles than was dictated by federal policy.

But the law simply allows such an exemption to be granted by the federal government -- it doesn't guarantee it. During his confirmation hearing in January, Pruitt suggested that that waiver may come under review.

"I don’t know without going through the process to determine that," Pruitt said when asked by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) if he would leave the waiver in place. "One would not want to presume the outcome."

In March, the wheels seemed to be turning toward revoking the waiver. That month, the New York Times reported that the EPA would "begin legal proceedings to revoke a waiver for California that was allowing the state to enforce the tougher tailpipe standards for its drivers."

But the White House left California out of an announcement later that month of a broader review of fuel-efficiency standards issued by the Obama administration.

On Thursday, Pruitt confirmed the Trump administration had indeed backed down on withdrawing the California waiver. 

"Currently the waiver is not under review," Pruitt told Congress. He added: "This has been something that's been granted going back to the beginning of the Clean Air Act because of the leadership that California demonstrated."

Why did the EPA back down? There are two possible reasons:

1) California's Democratic governor. The state's leader had signaled it was ready to fight the EPA tooth-and-nail for the right to set its own auto- emissions standards. In January, the state hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to advise it in potential legal battles on climate and other issues with a Justice Department he once ran. Brown's administration thought it had good chance of winning. “In this case we think we have a strong case to be made based on the facts and the history," Xavier Becerra, the state attorney general and a former California congressman, said last month.

"I hope Administrator Pruitt is good to his word," Becerra added in a statement on Friday. "If at some point down the line our efforts to combat air pollution are threatened, I am prepared to take any and all action necessary to defend our progress.”

The Atlantic explained the strength of California's position in March:

California is written into the Clean Air Act by name: At any time, it can ask the EPA administrator for a waiver to restrict tailpipe pollution more stringently than the federal government. If its proposed rules are “at least as protective of public health and welfare” as the EPA’s, then the administrator must grant the waiver.

2) California's Republican congressmen. While every statewide office in California is held by a Democrat, 14 congressmen in California's 55-person delegation are Republican. These include Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chair of the House Appropriations' subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which oversees the EPA's budget. On Thursday, Calvert affirmed his support for allowing California to set its own standards. 

"One thing that's important to California is our waiver," he said during the hearing. "We've had these waivers for over 50 years."

Of course, Pruitt said (emphasis added): "Currently the waiver is not under review." Meaning: The Trump administration could always change its mind.

POWER PLAYS

-- One pillar to Pruitt's "back-to-basic" approach to running the EPA is an espoused emphasis on cleaning up Superfund pollution sites. But after many sites have sat for years on so-called "priorities lists" through multiple presidential administrations, Pruitt himself acknowledges that residents living near them have every right to be skeptical of that rhetoric. “This agency has not responded to Superfund with the type of urgency and commitment that the people of this country deserve,” Pruitt told The Post's Brady Dennis in an interview. “I’m very sensitive and sympathetic to what their concerns are,” he said. “This agency has failed them. . . . They have a right to be skeptical.” 

Dennis traveled to one nuclear waste dump site in suburban St. Louis. Resident are indeed skeptical:
 

-- There appears to be a greater challenge to President Trump's goal to "greatly strengthen and expand" the U.S. nuclear arsenal than getting congressional funding. An extended shutdown of the nation's only scientific laboratory for producing and testing the plutonium cores over persistent safety shortcomings has hampered that goal too, according to a Center for Public Integrity report.

Take this one 2011 flop over... a photo-op: "Alarms were sounded more loudly after a nuclear technician positioned eight plutonium rods dangerously close together inside what is called a glovebox — a sealed container meant to contain the cancer-causing plutonium particles — on the afternoon of Aug. 11, 2011, to take a photograph for senior managers. Doing so posed the risk that neutrons emitted routinely by the metal in the rods would collide with the atoms of other particles, causing them to fission enough to provoke more collisions and begin an uncontrolled chain reaction of atom splitting."

Thankfully, that chain reaction never took off. At least they got their photo:

-- After The Washington Post reported that Scott Pruitt used two government email addresses while Oklahoma attorney general despite telling Congress he used just one, six senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee sent a letter to the EPA administrator asking for a "full accounting" of his email use in his last job, according to E&E News. Earlier, Pruitt had to clarify why he used personal email for state business.

-- The Associated Press dug into that new batch of emails released by the Center for Media and Democracy. The reporters' conclusion: the "emails underscore just how closely Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt coordinated with fossil fuel companies while serving as Oklahoma's state attorney general." 

-- STAR, or Science to Achieve Results, is just one of dozens of EPA programs that would be defunded under the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget. But it received fortunately timed scrutiny in a National Academy of Sciences report published late last week that concluded it worth saving. Since it started in 1995, STAR has become the EPA's primary way of funding extramural environmental research. As such, it fills "a very important niche" in environmental research, Harold Mooney, an environmental biologist at Stanford University and one of the National Academy of Sciences committee member who wrote the positive review of STAR, told The Post.

-- In his first weeks in office, Pruitt met with dozens of energy and related industry representatives, according to calendar documents obtained by E&E News through a Freedom of Information Act request. These include meetings with executives from BMW, Chevron, Dow Chemical, Duke Energy and Murray Energy between Feb. 21 to March 31. 

And the highlight: A March 22 meeting with the American Petroleum Institute's board of directors at... Trump International Hotel in Washington.

-- The United States has withdrawn 17 sites from the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves, a United Nation-run program meant to designate protected ecological areas throughout the world, according to National Geographic. The previous U.S. total was 47. Among the sites removed from the list are the California Coast Ranges and Virgin Islands National Park.

THERMOMETER

-- Wildfires used to be rare in the Great Plains. They’ve more than tripled in 30 years, a new study from researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln found. The study merely describes the uptick without trying to explain the underlying cause. But the trend is "consistent with not only climate change but also an incursion of more invasive plant species that could be providing additional fuel."

-- When University of Miami coral experts began gardening reefs along the South Florida coast a decade ago, it was to replace those lost to pollution, boating and overfishing. Now there's another environmental problem: warmer and more acidic waters, linked to climate change. So the University of Miami researchers' task has turned to identifying coral hardy enough to withstanding changing conditions to plant, the Miami Herald reports

-- Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Sequel" is not the only climate-related documentary released by a one-time politician this year. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new film, “From the Ashes," about the "war on coal," will air on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, June 25. Vicky Hallett offers this sneak peek in The Post: "Around Wright [in Wright, Wyo.], for instance, the coal sits in an aquifer. So pulling out the coal also means the water is gone from the springs that were fed by the aquifer. In Dallas, air heavily polluted by coal plants contributes to high rates of asthma among children. In North Carolina, coal-ash waste that was dumped into pits contaminated wells, making that water unsafe to drink."

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining's will hold an oversight hearing on restoring watersheds and large landscapes on Tuesday.
  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry is scheduled to testify before the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies on Tuesday on the department’s proposed budget.
  • Perry will also testify before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development on Wednesday and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday on the department’s budget.
  • The Ninth Annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game will take place on Wednesday.
  • Former Defense secretary Chuck Hagel, former Energy secretary Ernest Moniz, former EPA head Christie Todd Whitman will speak at an energy and climate event at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday.
  • Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Il), Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) will take part in Bloomberg Government’s conversation on the latest innovations for America’s infrastructure on Wednesday.
  • Moniz will speak at an event Wednesday at the National Press Club.
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will testify on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the department’s budget request.
  • Zinke will also testify about the department’s budget during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Wednesday and the House Committee on Natural Resources on Thursday.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard will hold a hearing on marine debris on Thursday.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials will hold a hearing on rail infrastructure on Thursday
EXTRA MILEAGE

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