The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Hurricanes are dominating the news. But forest fires are raging out West.

with Paulina Firozi


If two major back-to-back hurricanes had not borne down on the United States this past month, with a third in the form of Hurricane Maria this morning, the tens of thousands of wildfires raging out West would have garnered more national media coverage than they have.

But the fires throughout California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming have certainly caught the attention of residents there — as well as their representatives in Congress and the Trump administration, too.

Throughout this wildfire season, lawmakers have advanced a series of bills to put the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies on a better footing to fight fires that occur and prevent new ones from being sparked.

"You know, when you have to spend so much fighting fires, you can’t spend the money that’s appropriated to prevent forest fires," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a speech last week. "You know, Smokey wants us to prevent forest fires, don’t you, Smokey?"

For years, though, members of Congress have tried to fix federal forest firefighting — to no avail. And the the differences that stymied past overhaul efforts persist in the new proposals.

“It’s been the longest-running battle since the Trojan War,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. “I think we can finally win it now.”

The problem of costly forest fires is getting worse: Just last week, the Agriculture Department announced that wildfire suppression costs for the fiscal year have already topped $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive year on record. With another wildfire season that has scorched about 8 million acres, or about 2.5 million more acres than in an average year according to the National Interagency Coordination Center, Western lawmakers from both parties are again pressing Congress to act.

One of the biggest issues is the method of financing the battle against forest fires. Right now, the laws don't treat forest fires like other disasters such as hurricanes. The Forest Service must take money from other parts of its budget to pay for tackling the flames during particularly dry and hot years when the original money runs out. 

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that the practice, called “fire borrowing,” creates a vicious loop by which money meant for preventive measures, such as clearing underbrush, is instead spent on fighting fires, teeing up worse fires for the following year.

On Tuesday, Wyden introduced legislation with eight co-sponsors — four Democrats and four Republicans — that would allow the Forest Service to tap disaster relief funding once that original pot of fire-fighting money dries up.

But some Republicans — including Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee — say a fire-borrowing fix alone does not address the root causes of forest fires.

Bishop supports a measure from Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) that attracted 12 co-sponsors, including two Democrats.

Both that bill and Wyden's proposal aim to fix the Forest Service's problem. But crucially for Bishop and many other Western Republicans, Westerman's legislation also allows the Forest Service to thin trees on plots of land 10,000 acres or less without having to go through certain lengthy environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. 

“If all we're doing is throwing more money at wildfire suppression, that's a futile program because you don't solve the basic problem, which is forest management,” Bishop said. “State and tribal areas that have forests have much healthier forests because they don't have a lot of the restrictions the federal government does.”

Westerman's legislation has momentum, having passed the House Natural Resources Committee in June. An earlier version of the bill passed the full House in 2015 with the support of 20 Democrats before dying in the Senate. One senator, John Thune (R-S.D.), introduced a similar bill this August.

Environmentalists contend that bill is using forest fires as a pretext for giving loggers easier access to public forests meant for many uses, like recreation and wildlife habitat, and not just timber harvesting.

"What the Westerman bill does is elevate logging above all other uses of the national forests," said Jim Scheff, director of Kentucky Heartwood.

That legislation also proposes using a pilot arbitration system to resolve some legal challenges related to federal forests, a move that some environmentalists see as cutting the public off from weighing in on public-land decisions through the court system.

"The bill, I would say, just categorically tries to gut every part of the democratic process of public-lands management," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

But conservatives like Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) view the move as necessary to ensuring timely land-management decisions.

"The West is on fire as we speak today," Daines said last week. "The radical environmentalists have even been blocking projects to even remove dead trees," he added, citing a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to stop forest-management efforts on lands currently ablaze in Montana.

But supporters of a "clean" fire-borrowing fix, like Wyden, say the Forest Service is already equipped with the tools to fight and prevent wildfires. It just needs the money to do so.

"The Forest Service has authority to do active management, to do treatment," Wyden said. "The reality is they don’t have the funds because of this bizarre common sense-defying system of fire borrowing."

What about Trump? While the Trump administration has indicated that the White House wants a fire-borrowing fix, both sides of the congressional debate point to comments from executive-branch officials indicating the administration supports their respective solution. 

For example, Wyden's office pointed to comments from Perdue seeming to indicate that he felt the Forest Service has the authority it needs to manage wildfires — just not the money.

"I believe that we have the right processes and the right procedures of attacking and fighting fires," Perdue said last week. "But if you don’t have the resources and the means of dependable funding, that’s an issue."

But Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke, speaking alongside Daines last week, suggested his agency could use some more tools in the toolbox.

"We also appreciate the support and the help we’re getting from Congress for action and tools that help us do more work," Tooke said.

In response to an inquiry from The Energy 202, spokeswoman Babete Anderson said: "The Forest Service is working with the Administration and Congress on a fire funding fix."


-- "No confusion:" EPA chief Scott Pruitt weighed in on this week’s back-and-forth about whether the Trump administration will ultimately withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

“As far as the exit is concerned, there is no confusion there,” he said at the Concordia Annual Summit in New York on Tuesday, the Washington Examiner reported. “The exit is occurring.”

Pruitt added that the United States could re-engage in the accord with a “new agreement” if there were “terms more favorable.”

-- Emmanuel Macron's response — there should be no confusion about this either: The French president shot down that possibility. In a statement during his United Nations General Assembly address, Emmanuel Macron emphasized that the Paris accord “will not be renegotiated.” He also said that the door was open if the United States wanted to return to the agreement.

-- More from Pruitt: The EPA chief also reiterated that his agency was serious about conducting a "red team-blue team" exercise for climate science. Pruitt has previously emphasized that scientists do not know the degree to which global warming is being caused by humans.

“There's a framework being discussed on how it would occur,” Pruitt said, according to The Hill. "This would not be an overnight thing or something done in a month. It would likely last many, many months."

-- And speaking of the EPA: The Sierra Club sued the agency on Monday, claiming it failed to respond to information requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The resistance, the non-responsiveness and the delays that we’re encountering now at EPA are beyond anything we’ve seen at EPA before and they’re beyond what we’re seeing at other agencies,” Sierra Club lawyer Matthew Miller told Reuters.

Why the delays? The Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard writes of a “FOIA explosion” hitting the agency at a rate of more than 60 requests a day. As of last week, 10,970 FOIA requests have been filed, Bedard wrote, just 850 off the record set in fiscal 2007 under the last Republican administration.

-- Passed the first hurdle: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved Trump’s nominees to be members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday. If confirmed by the full Senate, Kevin McIntyre and Rich Glick would return the FERC to its full membership.

Though the need for a full FERC quorum has been met, filling these last two seats is important for the commission to do the approvals for energy infrastructure that Trump so values more quickly. 

The Senate panel also unanimously approved Ryan Nelson to be the solicitor of the Interior Department. All members except for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) voted to approve Joseph Balash to be the assistant secretary of the Interior Land and Minerals Management. David Jonas, the nominee to be the Energy Department’s general counsel, was approved by a 14-to-9 vote.

-- And at EPA: The New York Times has a very worthwhile read on Michael Dourson, the nominee to run the EPA's chemical regulatory program who critics say is too closely tied to industry to take the job.

Dourson's confirmation hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, but has been postponed.

-- At least one more Republican is warming up on climate change: Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) certainly has liberals furious this month with his last-ditch effort to repeal Obamacare. But the senator, who is often willing to buck the rest of the Republican Party, gave environmentally minded Democrats a sliver of hope on Tuesday that the GOP will eventually come around on climate-change policy. 

Speaking at Yale on Tuesday, Graham endorsed a "price on carbon" to fight climate change. 

"I'm a Republican. I believe that the greenhouse effect is real, that CO2 emissions generated by man is creating our greenhouse gas effect that traps heat, and the planet is warming," he said, according to Time magazine. "A price on carbon — that's the way to go in my view."

Graham's closest colleague in the Senate, John McCain (R-Ariz.), made similar comments about climate change following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

His Senate colleague, Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I), who proposed a carbon-tax bill this summer, was heartened by the comments:

But a reminder: Last May, 22 other GOP senators came out against the Obama administration's main effort at addressing climate change, the Paris climate accord.

-- Arcade wizard: In a celebration of fishing and gaming on public lands, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke installed on Tuesday a different sort of game in the employee cafeteria at Interior's headquarters.

"Completing the Department's goals and objectives hinges on employee awareness and involvement," the department said in a press release. "Having the 'Big Buck Hunter Pro' arcade game will get many employees involved in sportmen's season, in turn furthering the Department's mission of wildlife and habitat conservation​."

As the GQ profile of Zinke in July indicated, the Interior Secretary is good at generating positive press about himself and, in the words of the magazine, "raising his own profile."


-- An eye on Hurricane Maria: The storm could impact Puerto Rico’s underfunded power resource, which is still recovering following Irma, Reuters reported. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority filed for bankruptcy in July. Following the storm two weeks ago, 1 million of PREPA’s 1.5 million customers lost power, according to the report, and since then all but 60,000 have had the power turned back on.

But now officials are predicting Puerto Rico could have power outages for weeks.

“Even if we had an energy system in prime condition, which we all know we don’t have, it still would be very difficult,” Nydia Suarez of think tank CNE Group who lives in Puerto Rico told Reuters.

-- Also something to keep an eye on: The island territory's myriad environmental hazards that could be exacerbated by the storm, according to The New Republic's Emily Atkin.

-- The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has released images of the charred remains of what burned at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Tex. following Hurricane Harvey, reports The Washington Post’s Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis. They write: “Two of the photos show the skeletal remains of three shipping-size containers covered with ash near the edge of the Arkema facility. Another shows a container burned beyond recognition in front of a charred warehouse.”

Take a look at some of the rest of the photos here.

-- A fire broke out at the 335,000-barrel-a-day Valero refinery in Port Arthur, Tex., on Tuesday. The refinery is located in one of the hardest-hit cities following Harvey, CNBC reported. Employees of the facility have been accounted for and no injuries have been reported.


-- Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane this morning, the strongest storm to hit the island directly since 1932. As of landfall, the system had maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, just 2 mph shy of being a Category 5 hurricane.

The storm was downgraded some before impact, Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow reported, from 175 to 155 mph winds.

“This is going to impact all of Puerto Rico with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations,” Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told the Associated Press. “We’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico. We’re going to have to rebuild.”

Thousands of residents were huddled in shelters as of early this morning, Rosselló tweeted:

President Trump tweeted Tuesday night to express his support in the midst of the “monster” hurricane:

Samenow reports that “conditions in Puerto Rico will continue deteriorating as the core of the storm with its violent winds move over the island.”

“Because the storm is a relatively slow mover, this region can expect extreme hurricane conditions for an extended duration well into the day Wednesday in the U.S. Virgin Islands and, over Puerto Rico, perhaps into Wednesday night,” he added.

Associated Press reporter and editor Dánica Coto shared a clip of blustering winds on the island as the storm made landfall:

From NBC News: 

-- U.S. Virgin Islands update: The territory lacks the necessary supplies as it awaits potential devastation from Maria, Politico reports. On Monday, none of the generators that had been ordered had been received, and just 15,000 of 135,000 sheeting covers to protect homes were delivered. Officials are also short 400,000 meals and 150 cots for shelters.

“There are supplies that are literally out to sea right now that are not being brought in,” FEMA spokesman Don Caetano told Politico. “Had Maria not been a factor, those supplies would have been there already.”

Caetano told Politico that the U.S. Virgin Islands governor and FEMA decided to hold off on deliveries until after the storm had passed to “protect the commodities and also to protect the infrastructure.”

-- Worth a read: This debrief from Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz on Puerto Rico’s history with storms. “Despite its location in the heart of hurricane territory, Puerto Rico has endured surprisingly few hurricanes,” Fritz writes. “On average, the island experiences a tropical storm every five years, and hurricanes even less frequently than that.” And now Maria has made landfall on the island in what will likely be its worst hurricane disaster on record.

-- The handful of the worst hurricanes we’ve seen this year all have something in common: They intensified rapidly, making it all the more likely the impact will cause the worst-case scenario.

“It’s a dangerous and scary phenomenon that scientists and forecasters are still trying to understand,” The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. The acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center told Mooney that this hurricane season experienced “more rapid intensification events than usual.” And Maria, the latest storm to pummel through the Atlantic, may have set a record, going from a tropical depression to a Category 5 hurricane in two and a half days.

Mooney writes: “The National Hurricane Center technically defines rapid intensification as a wind speed increase of at least 35 miles per hour in 24 hours. All four of the most intense Atlantic storms in 2017 beat that easily.”

And the environment this year is “extremely hurricane friendly,” he adds.

-- For an indication of the long road ahead for Harvey and Irma victims, look at Sandy: FiveThirtyEight published a stunning graphic that shows that in the five years since Superstorm Sandy hit the mid-Atlantic, calls are still coming in requesting information about disaster relief. In 2017, it notes, 142 calls have already been made. Check it out here and below:


-- "Unprecedented heat and rainfall” for Alaska: If climate trends continue, Alaska can expect markedly heavier rainfalls, above-freezing winter thaws and summer days with higher temperatures, the Alaska Dispatch News reports.

A new study by scientists at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks predicts that by the end of the century, summer days with temperatures above 77 degrees will “skyrocket” from a 1981-2010 average of 1.5 days to nearly 30 days a year. Rainfalls will be 50 percent heavier than current norms.

The study warns: “When compared to the historical period, the shifts in temperature and precipitation indicate unprecedented heat and rainfall across Alaska during this century.”



  • The Senate Environment and Public Works committee holds a hearing on the nominations of Michael Dourson, Matthew Leopold, David Ross, and William Wehrum to be assistant administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Jeffery Baran to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

  • The Institute of World Politics holds an event on energy security.


The U.N. urges climate change action as Trump resists:

The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and activist Al Gore held a meeting inside the U.N. on Sept. 18 to push for action on global warming. (Video: Reuters)

This is what the eye of Hurricane Maria looks like: 

NOAA’s GOES 16 satellite captured a close view of Hurricane Maria’s swirling eye on Sept.19 as it made its way to Puerto Rico. (Video: NOAA)

View the satellite images show Hurricane Maria approaching the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico:

After slamming into Dominica on the night of September 18, Hurricane Maria is headed toward the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. (Video: CIRA/RAMMB/NOAA)

The Fact Checker's look at the president's remark that "we've had bigger storms": 

When asked if the recent hurricanes changed his views on climate change, the president pointed to storms in the 1930s and 1940s. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Watch some highlights from The Fact Checker's 10th annivesary: 

For the past 10 years, the Fact Checker has examined the statements of leading politicians. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)