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The Energy 202: How Pruitt's hustle to deregulate the EPA may bite him

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with Paulina Firozi


In his aggressive pursuit of rolling back Obama administration regulations, President Trump's top environmental official may be bumping up against his legal limits.

Late Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce an Obama administration rule limiting the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, that can be emitted from new or modified oil and gas wells.

The 9-to-2 decision comes after an earlier ruling in July striking down as illegal a 90-day delay in the implementation of the decision compelling oil and gas well operators to plug methane leaks.

Industry groups have argued that the federal rules were unnecessary as they duplicated state efforts to rein in emissions. 

"That's where the previous administration overstepped," said Jack Gerard, the president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, in an interview before the ruling was issued. "There were multiple regulations on methane."

Where much of the rest of the Trump agenda on health care or a tax rewrite flounders, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is plugging away at repealing Obama-era regulations and helping bolster the president's claim that he is keeping his campaign promise to deregulate the fossil-fuel sector. With both chambers of Congress led by the GOP, environmentalists opposed to that agenda have turned to the courts to block Trump's policy.

The methane rulings may just be the start of the legal pendulum swinging back to their side. Most of the headlines the EPA has generated during Trump's six months in office boil down to this: The EPA will begin the lengthy review process of undoing such-and-such rule.

For example, in February, Trump surrounded himself with cameras and lawmakers to sign an executive order targeting a clean-water rule that greatly expanded the number of waterways that fall under federal protection.

Though Pruitt has publicly indicated to Congress that the EPA would “provide clarity” by “withdrawing” the clean-water protection, called the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, the agency only took its first step in a dual-prong process by officially rescinding the decision last week. And even so, the EPA must take the time to address the thorny legal question the Obama rule sought to address. Those include what waterways fall under the jurisdiction of the ambiguously worded Clean Water Act. Litigants have tried and failed to sort out that question in the courts for years.

Here's the problem: Pruitt's hustle may be just now coming back to bite him in his quest to cut down on red tape he says is hurting the energy sector – thereby making it harder for him to implement the Trump environmental agenda. The Administrative Procedure Act requires the EPA to seek public comment and state its justification before suspending a rule as it is being considered for repeal.  And there are court challenges that could get in the way if the administration isn't careful.

Bethany A. Davis Noll, an attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity, and Richard L. Revesz, a New York University law professor, argue that the EPA is cutting corners in striking down Obama administration rules.

The lawyers argue that Pruitt has suspended rules without taking actions required beforehand.

"Pruitt’s willingness to play fast and loose has helped his anti-regulatory reputation soar," the two lawyers write in Slate. "But the brazen deficiencies in the agency’s work exposing the hollowness of Pruitt’s 'rule of law' rhetoric should give Pruitt’s supporters pause. Once the judicial challenges run their course, Pruitt may be striking out a lot more."

But other legal experts say Pruitt knows to dot every i and cross every t. Jeff Holmstead, a former deputy administrator at the EPA under George W. Bush and a partner at the law firm Bracewell, said that it was "a mistake to read too much into the methane decision." He said that the rollback of other Obama-era regulations, such as the WOTUS rule or the Clean Power Plan, rely on different parts of the law than what Pruitt used to halt the methane rule. 

"Because they know everything will be challenged in court," Holmstead said of EPA officials, "they are bending over backwards to make sure that everything they do has a legal basis."

He added, "I think they were a little taken aback" by the methane ruling.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the court that issued the ruling was the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.


-- And then there were three: First, there was Vanity Fair's profile of the Department of Energy. Then there was Rolling Stone's profile of the EPA. And now, GQ has a feature out about the Department of the Interior.

Or more accurately, about the department head, Ryan Zinke, who appears to be trying to stay above from the daily fray of Trumpworld and fashion his own political identity. The author of the piece, Elaina Plott, hints that the former 55-year-old congressman from Montana might have another run for office in him.

But the best part of the profile is about how Zinke got the job he has now. Plott reports on Zinke's job interview with Trump (emphasis added):

After the election, Zinke was hosting his office Christmas party in Washington when he got the call from Reince Priebus, the then-presumptive (now-former) chief of staff. Mr. Trump, Priebus told Zinke, wanted to see him in New York.

Rumors buzzed that he'd been shortlisted for the job atop the Interior Department, but when Zinke and his wife, Lola, passed through the gilded doors of Trump Tower, he actually had no clue what position he was interviewing for—Priebus had never said definitively. And by the end of a rambling conversation with the president-elect, Zinke still wasn't entirely sure.

"The conversation went a hundred seconds. It went from women in combat to Syria policy to the Chinese to energy independence, a little about public lands, a little about hunting access," Zinke tells me. "Most of the conversation was not really Interior, per se." At one point, Trump proposed the Veterans Affairs post, to which Zinke quipped, "I don't think you hate me that much."

He was flying back to Montana when Mike Pence called him. "The vice president says, 'Well, congratulations!'" Zinke recalls, sharing the moment he was asked to join the Trump Cabinet, "and I asked him, 'What job?'"

-- To the moon, senator! While visiting Bunkerville, Nev. on Monday, Zinke was asked by reporters about his phone calls with Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, in which Zinke let the Alaska senators know, in the words of the Alaska Daily News, that Murkowski's vote against the health-care legislation "put Alaska's future with the administration in jeopardy."

"The moon has been characterized as a threat, too, so I think it's laughable," Zinke said according to E&E News.

-- Pruitt 2020? The former Oklahoma attorney general talked about his political future in a wide-ranging interview published in The Oklahoman. While he ruled out a run for governor in 2018, the EPA head did not close the door on future runs — like in 2020 for, say, the seat of 82-year-old Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

“To think somehow that ... I would go through a confirmation process which, by any measure, is pretty intense, serve five months and move to Washington, D.C. in order to run for governor ... I mean, who would do that?” Pruitt told Oklahoman reporter Justin Wingerter.

Wingerter adds: “When asked if he was committed to remaining in the Trump administration for four years, Pruitt hesitated before declining to speculate. He said he didn't know he would be attorney general or the owner of a baseball team, so how could he predict what's next?"

A recent Rolling Stone article fanned rumors of Pruitt's political ambitions, which have bee coursing through Washington for months. If he runs, "there will be more campaign contributions than anyone has ever seen," Gavin Isaacs, the former head of the Oklahoma Bar Association, told the magazine.

-- More than a dozen science groups signed a joint letter to the Trump administration on Monday calling for a meeting with Pruitt before the agency begins the “red team/blue team” debate on the validity and causes of climate change.

The letter was sent to Pruitt by 16 groups led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to “remind you of the ongoing research, testing, evaluations, and debates that happen on a regular basis in every scientific discipline.”

It continues: "Given your interest in the state of climate science, we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to better understand your perspective and rationale for the proposed activity.”


-- Not just Russia: The White House on Monday issued sanctions against Nicolás Maduro, president of oil-rich Venezuela.

As The Post's Heather Long writes, Trump is clearly no fan of Maduro, who he has called a "bad leader" and a "dictator." But Trump stopped short of hitting the Venezuelan leader where it hurts: In the country's oil fields.

The reason: Trump knows that today's cheap gas is good politics. Venezuela supplies a tenth of U.S. oil imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. As one analyst told Long, if Trump banned Venezuelan oil, "prices would go up like a rocket."

DOE: Perry on tweet probe: 'Have at it'


-- Two utilities in South Carolina have stopped construction on nuclear reactors, writes The Post’s Steven Mufson, delivering a setback to the hope to bring back the country’s nuclear-power industry.

What happened: “The project has been plagued by billions of dollars of cost overuns, stagnant demand for electricity, competition from cheap natural gas plants, and the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, the lead contractor and the designer of the AP1000 reactor that was supposed to be the foundation of a smarter, cheaper generation of nuclear power plants. Instead, the South Carolina reactors, along with two others under construction in Georgia, have demonstrated that the main obstacle to new nuclear power projects is an economic one. The plants would be more viable if the federal government were to impose a tax on carbon as part of climate change policy, but that seems unlikely.”

The takeaway: Without any serious climate policy from Washington — e.g., a carbon tax  — it's hard to see the prospects of nuclear energy getting any brighter in the United States, which has built only one new reactor since 1980. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has talked up nuclear energy since taking office, but the Trump administration proposed slashing funding to the department's nuclear energy office.

-- Solar scraps: In less than two decades, China, which currently has the world’s largest number of solar power plants, will have to figure out what to do with the waste created by out-of-commission solar panels.

The South China Morning Post writes that “the country’s cumulative capacity of retired panels would reach up to 70 gigawatts (GW) by 2034. That is three times the scale of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project, by power production,” according to a report by Lu Fang, secretary general of the photovoltaics decision in the China Renewable Energy Society."

The issue: A solar panel lasts about 20 to 30 years, depending on conditions such as temperatures. The problem China will have to deal with is what to do with those spent solar panels.

Tian Min, general manager of a recycling company that collects old solar panels, said the solar power industry “will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment, if the estimate is correct.”

“This is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle.” 

Alphabet Wants to Fix Renewable Energy’s Storage Problem — With Salt


--Climate optimism be gone: There’s seemingly diminishing optimism surrounding climate change with every new study, writes The Post's Chris Mooney, running down a pair of new reports that "asserts that there’s little chance of the world will stay within prescribed climate limits."

One of the new studies “calculates the statistical likelihood of various amounts of warming by the year 2100 based on three trends that matter most for how much carbon we put in the air,” Mooney writes. The result? There’s only a 5 percent chance the world can keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius and only a 2 percent chance it can be limited to below 1.5 degrees.

Is there any silver lining? Mooney reports: “The upshot of all the latest research, however, is that while limiting warming to 2 degrees is seeming unlikely, and 1.5 degrees nearly impossible, staying within something like 2.5 degrees still seems quite possible if there’s concerted action. And who knows whether in thirty years, negative emissions may appear much more feasible than they do now, providing the option of cooling the planet back down again at some point.”

-- The reviews are in: If there are a few points of consensus in the reviews of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” it’s 1) that the former vice president is cast as the hero of the climate-change movement and 2) that the original 2006 “An Inconvenient Truth” was mostly a Power-Point presentation, and the sequel is less so.

The film, which debuted in limited theaters on Friday and will be released nationwide Aug. 4, updates the world on progress made in the science and policy climate change — plus plenty of Gore's own activities.

Here’s what the reviews are saying (emphasis added):

The New York Times calls it the "reboot that justifies its existence:"

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” a follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning documentary from 2006, is a reboot that justifies its existence — and not just because Mr. Gore has fresh news to report on climate change since his previous multimedia presentation played in multiplexes. If there is a thesis in this new documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (“Audrie & Daisy”), it’s that a rise in extreme weather is making the impact of climate change harder to deny.

Entertainment Weekly says it gives viewers "still some reason for hope:"

Back in 2006, when Al Gore turned his PowerPoint climate-change crusade into the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, there was still some reason for hope. Sure, Bush and Cheney were calling the shots, but the force of Gore’s argument was impossible to ignore. Now, a decade later, with a fervent global-warming denier in the Oval Office, hope seems in shorter supply. In his wake-up-call follow-up, Gore is a little grayer and a little thicker around the mid­section, but he’s still tirelessly speaking truth to power on behalf of our ailing planet in his folksy Tennessee twang. During one of his presentations in which he shows disaster footage from around the globe, he says, “Every night on the evening news is like a nature walk through the Book of Revelation.” You’d have to have your head in the sand not to agree.

The New Yorker says it gives younger climate activists the "short shrift:"

Psychologists have studied the dynamics of what advertisers call “fear appeals,” and they have found that while fear is very good at getting our attention, it’s not very good at keeping it. For that, the scary stuff must be followed by solutions that are small enough to be practical but large enough to be meaningful ...  “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which is a work of advocacy rather than journalism, pivots efficiently away from its disaster reel and toward solutions, cheering the rise of cheaper renewables and the promise of the Paris climate accord, even in the wake of the U.S.’s withdrawal. But its tight focus on Gore means that grassroots climate activists—many of whom were galvanized by Gore’s first film, and by the hundreds of trainings he has held in the years since—get short shrift. For the most part, they are shown sitting in auditoriums, listening raptly to Gore’s presentation. A long segment of the film is devoted to Gore’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Indian delegation at the Paris conference—which, while procedurally interesting, is hardly the sort of thing that most viewers can try at home.

 CNN notes the sequel comes amid "a wave of documentary films" on climate change:

If "Inconvenient Truth" felt groundbreaking, the sequel comes on the heels of a wave of documentary films exploring aspects of the topic, from Leonardo DiCaprio's "Before the Flood" to the recent Netflix project "Chasing Coral," about disappearing ocean reefs.

As celebrity climate warriors go, Gore was a pioneer, and he's inevitably cast as the hero in this story, working behind the scenes to help pave the way for the Paris accord. But there's no questioning his commitment to the cause -- "a mission," he says, "that I have dedicated myself to."

Viewed in concert with the original, that sense of genuine dedication is one of the more enduring aspects of "An Inconvenient Sequel." And while Gore paints a fairly rosy longterm picture based on the progress he sees, the great unknown is whether he'll feel motivated to do a third film a decade from now, and not incidentally, how high average temperatures and the sea level will be by then.

A.V. Club writes the film veered into "celebrity profile:"

There was nothing especially artful about An Inconvenient Truth. Less a movie than a glorified PowerPoint presentation, it offered only the sight of Al Gore, our former vice president, standing on a stage and explaining—through diagrams and photographs and unsexy science—the sobering reality of global warming. What the Oscar-winning documentary lacked in panache, however, it made up for in educational value; there’s evidence to suggest that An Inconvenient Truth has greatly raised awareness, reshaping the public’s understanding of our ongoing environmental crisis. Eleven years later, Gore has spearheaded a follow-up, designed to get everyone up to date on that crisis. But while An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power is certainly more cinematic than its predecessor—its directors haven’t just filmed a seminar this time—it’s also inherently less useful, because the focus has pivoted away from the alarming statistics to the man delivering them. They’ve chased a valuable science lesson with something that comes closer, occasionally, to a celebrity profile.

The Verge argues that the film will fail to energize activists:

As a call to recruit and energize a new generation of environmentalists, no, it's not good. Al Gore travels across the globe, educating trainees, who we barely get to know. And what exactly Gore trains these men and women to do, beyond monologue in public spaces, is unclear.

The film doesn't offer any surprising updates on global warming for a pseudo-woke teen with a social-media stream. Nor does it lay out actionable strategies for viewers who could be persuaded to change their habits, but don't know how. In that way, it's a missed opportunity for Gore and his multi-decade agenda. An Inconvenient Truth formed the choir, and it’s inexplicable that this sequel makes no effort to teach that choir to sing.

The Guardian calls the move boring (and gives the film two stars):

Al Gore knows everybody. He can whip out his cell phone and dial the treasury secretary or the head of a giant solar panel manufacturer and say things such as “I’ll check with President Hollande” or “Elon suggested I call.” It’s amazing, then, that nowhere in his contacts is the number of a documentary film-maker that knows a thing or two about keeping audiences awake.

-- I interviewed Gore after a showing of the film in Washington. Here are a few other questions he answered that I didn't include back then, some of which get at why he made a sequel.

Q: Is one of the reasons you have done a second movie is to reach a younger audience that maybe missed the first movie?

Gore: Yes, but it's more because there are new things to say. The solutions are so exciting now and so available. China is now providing leadership instead of opposition, which was the case 10 years ago. India, just since the Paris agreement, has done a U-turn and started canceling coal plans and ramping way up on solar. I think it's important to update the reality that we're facing both to alert people that the problem is worse, but also to let people know that we do have the solutions and we can solve this.

Q: Have you read the New York magazine [the hotly debated "Uninhabitable Earth"] piece? What did you think of it?

Gore: I know that some scientists have pointed out what they regard as specific mistakes in that analysis, but overall, I do think there is a place for a worst-case analysis. My own preference is to try to emphasize the consensus opinions of the scientists and couple the analysis of how dangerous the threat is with a presentation of how real the hope is that we can solve this. We have really witnessed a dramatic change in the availability of affordable solutions. So I like to present that evidence of genuine hope along with the evidence of how dangerous this crisis is.

(Question and answers here edited for length and clarity.)



  • Pew Charitable Trusts holds a webinar on flooding threats to public schools.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management, and Regulatory Oversight will hold a hearing on the superfund program.
  •  The EPA will hold a public hearing on the proposed “Renewable Fuel Standard Program: Standards for 2018 and Biomass-Based Diesel Volume for 2019.”

Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power holds a  hearing on water security and drought preparedness on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearingon the FBI Headquarters Consolidation Project on Wednesday.
  • The Interior Department holds a program on reviewing advances in oil spill responses since the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill on Wednesday.
  • The CRES Forum holds an event on the future of job growth in the solar industry and free trade on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to “examine federal and nonfederal collaboration, including through the use of technology, to reduce wildland fire risk to communities and enhance firefighting safety and effectiveness” on Thursday
  • The UPROSE holds its 6th Climate Justice Youth Summit is on Thursday.

The Post's Ashley Parker, Carol D. Leonnig, Philip Rucker and Tom Hamburger report President Trump intervened to write Donald Trump Jr.'s statement on meeting with a Russian lawyer: 

Inside President Trump's damage control of the Donald Trump Jr. meeting. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Here's a look back at Anthony Scaramucci’s remarkably short tenure at the White House:

Leaks, threats and insults. And it lasted less than two weeks. Here's a look back at the very short tenure of the former White House communications director. (Video: Victoria Walker, Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

From Stephen Colbert, "Another Day, Another White House Nameplate:"