As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the congressional committees investigating Russian interference in last year's election, Charles E. Grassley is in a better position than most other Republicans in Congress to tighten the screws on the Trump administration.
So President Trump raised eyebrows when he telephoned the senior senator from Iowa at the end of August. The topic of their conservation was not Russia, Grassley's office insisted — it was ethanol.
That the president would take the time to call a senator about a provincial issue amid a high-stakes investigation of international election meddling strained the credulity of some observers.
But the Iowa congressional delegation and the Environmental Protection Agency, led by Scott Pruitt, are indeed on a collision course over an issue central to the economic viability of biofuels — and to the farmers in Iowa growing the corn and other agricultural products that go into them. Over the past few months, the EPA has proposed weakened requirements for how much renewable fuels needs to be blended into the nation's gasoline and diesel.
On Tuesday, Grassley told an audience at an Iowa biodiesel producer that the recent EPA proposals “would drastically undermine biodiesel production, and most importantly, it’s contrary to statements made by then-candidate Trump and President Trump.”
“Whether it’s biodiesel or anything else,” he said, “I believe it’s a platform not just to run on, but to stand on.”
Since 2005, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging and desire for energy independence from the Middle East, the federal government has mandated that transportation fuel contain a certain percentage of renewable fuel derived from corn, soybeans and other foodstuffs.
So every year, the EPA sets the Renewable Fuel Standard, which required that a certain volume of biofuels, including ethanol, be mixed into the gasoline and diesel supply.
And in every presidential election, promises to support that program have become a staple of campaign rallies and diner visits ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa.
In many ways, Trump was an unprecedented candidate who made unprecedented promises. But on this issue he was utterly conventional — conventionally supportive, that is, of biofuels.
Ahead of Iowa’s GOP caucus in February 2016, Trump repeatedly slammed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) over his ethanol stance. Like some other Republicans from oil and gas strongholds, the senator from Texas wanted to abolish the RFS.
“He's right now for the oil,” Trump told a crowd at a rally at the end of 2015. “But I understand because Big Oil pays him a lot of money. He's got to be oil, right? The oil companies give him a lot of money.”
In part because of Trump's remarks, Grassley began embracing Trump long before the rest of the GOP establishment did, appearing at a rally with him in January 2016.
“We have an opportunity once again to make America great again,” Grassley told a crowd in Iowa, echoing Trump’s campaign slogan.
That promise to support ethanol helped Trump place second in the Iowa caucus and go on to win that and other Midwestern states in the general election, said Grant Kimberley, a corn and soybean farmer in Iowa and executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board.
"Rural American elected President Trump," Kimberley said, "and that was one of the key factors in the Midwest."
This year, during a campaign-style rally in Iowa, Trump reiterated that commitment to ethanol. “By the way, we’re saving your ethanol industries in the state of Iowa just like I promised I would do in my campaign,” Trump said. “Believe me, they are under siege, folks.”
Right now, though, the biofuel industry feels as if it’s under siege by the Trump administration.
At the beginning of the year, when Grassley and other Midwestern senators met separately with Pruitt and Rick Perry as they prepared to vote for them to run the EPA and the Energy Department, the pair of oil-state nominees promised — unprompted — to support ethanol.
“We had a very clear indication from them,” Grassley said, “that they knew what the president has said.”
In July, the EPA proposed reducing the amount of biofuel required to be blended into gasoline and diesel to 19.24 billion gallons for next year, but kept the total for conventional biofuels at current levels.
Biofuel industry groups were set on edge. So in August, Trump phoned Grassley to talk about ethanol. The president pressed the senator to tweet that Trump supported ethanol, and Grassley obliged:
Just had ph call from Pres Trump he assured me he's pro ethanol I'm free 2 the ppl of Iowa he's standing by his campaign PROMISE— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) August 30, 2017
Tlkd 2 @realDonaldTrump about ethanol he knows that ethanol is good good good— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) August 30, 2017
“He ran on a platform of supporting ethanol and he was still for ethanol, and he wanted me to tell the people,” Grassley told me in an interview earlier this week.
But then in September, the EPA truly infuriated the biofuel industry by floating the idea of bringing the proposed total even lower, and of revisiting other renewable fuel requirements for 2018 and 2019 finalized under the Obama administration.
The proposal is in line with what the oil and gas industry want (those energy producers think the RFS adds to the cost of refining petroleum and wants to see Congress rewrite the underlying 2005 law). "Until Congress acts to address the structural flaws with the RFS," Frank J. Macchiarola of the American Petroleum Institute wrote in a letter to the EPA earlier this year, "lowering the volume requirements in 2018 is the most effective short-term way for EPA to address the problems created by the RFS."
Yet in none of Grassley's conversations — with Pruitt, with Perry or with Trump — did the administration make specific assurances about RFS levels going forward, the senator said. “It was just pretty generic,” Grassley said in the interview of meeting with Pruitt and Perry. And Grassley spoke with Trump for only about two minutes during that August phone call, he said. Grassley said he spoke with Trump again about ethanol in late September.
Earlier this month, Grassley and 37 other senators from both parties wrote a letter to Pruitt urging him to grow blending targets. Midwestern governors are now preparing their own letter, too. Iowa’s two GOP senators, Grassley and Joni Ernst, along with other members, are scheduled to meet with Pruitt on Tuesday to discuss the RFS, said the senator, adding he will urge Pruitt to maintain the Obama numbers.
Grassley made a point of aiming his criticism at Pruitt, not Trump. Biofuel producers “need certainty,” Grassley said, “and Pruitt’s actions would bring uncertainty to an industry that needs more capital investment, and that’s bad for the industry.”
That perception of a divide between Trump and Pruitt is shared by some in the agriculture sector. "I think he's doing his own thing," Kimberley said of Pruitt. "Our goal is to remind the president of his promises."
The senior senator from Iowa, which got more than a third of its electricity from wind in 2016, also recently dinged Pruitt for seemingly misunderstanding tax credits for wind energy.
While traveling in Kentucky when announcing the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, Pruitt called for the elimination of wind and solar tax credits. “I would do away with these incentives that we give to wind and solar,” Pruitt told an audience on Monday, even though both are scheduled to phase out over the next five years.
Grassley, who like the president likes to write his own tweets, responded to Pruitt on Twitter by noting that the wind tax credit is already on schedule to wind down:
I’m mtg w/Pruitt next week. I will remind him wind ptc phaseout will stay on books until 2020, like Congress planned— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) October 10, 2017
“I think what I would have to do is assume that Pruitt didn’t know anything about the phasing out of the wind energy tax credit,” Grassley told me, “or he wouldn’t have made that statement.”
In contrast, Grassley said he was encouraged that Trump has backed away from bashing wind energy for killing birds, as Trump sometimes did during the campaign. “There’s more birds killed by running into Trump Tower,” Grassley said, “than there is by wind energy.”
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The deadly fires in Northern California entered a fifth day of destruction on Thursday. And while the winds fanning the flames had somewhat calmed, giving firefighters a respite from dry, “red-flag” conditions, the work has not let up.
The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Sandhya Somashekhar, Kristine Phillips and J. Freedom du Lac report that officials focused on searching for the missing and the dead. As of Friday, 31 people had been killed, more than half in Sonoma County. There are 400 people still unaccounted for, out of the 1,100 who have been reported missing. The devastation is the state’s deadliest wildfire on record, exceeding the 1933 Griffith Park Fire that killed 29.
“We’ve found bodies that were almost completely intact; we’ve found bodies that are nothing more than ashes and bones,” Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said at a news conference Thursday.
More than 20 fires have burned across the northern part of the state. The fires have scorched more than 3,000 homes and buildings and destroyed more than 190,000 acres — a collective area about the size of New York City. About 4,000 people are huddled in evacuation centers. There are 100,000 customers without power, Utility Dive reports. It’s unclear when many people will be able to return home, as evacuation zones continue to expand.
And the fires are affecting the air quality across the state. It's the worst level of pollution since 1999, when data collection began, reports NPR.
On Tuesday in Napa, Calif., the air quality index was 404 for small particulate matter. Anything above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups.
“These fires are a long way from being contained, so we’re doing the best we can for people that have been displaced and help them to hopefully rebuild their lives,” said Barry Dugan, a Sonoma County spokesman.
The National Weather Service reports that the winds that had died down on Thursday would kick up again over the weekend, which could breathe new life into the deadly flames.
Here are some images of the smoke affecting the state.
From meterologist Matt Pace:
From a photographer for the East Bay Times:
From CBS This Morning:
The air is full of smoke in San Francisco and the surrounding area. Officials tell CBS News the air quality there is now as bad as China's. pic.twitter.com/WplgjV3unf— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) October 13, 2017
-- In othe natural disaster news: This feature piece by Texas Tribune and ProPublica details stories of people who lived in Houston’s reservoirs built to protect the city from flooding (this time from the recent arrival of Hurricane Harvey), but were never aware of it. Some local officials had no idea, nor did real estate agents who were selling homes within those neighborhoods. Other local government officials tried to warn residents, according to the report. “It is very difficult to make people believe the unbelievable,” said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack. “No one ever believed the reservoirs would fill.”
-- Where’s Zinke? Just follow the flag. The Post’s Lisa Rein reports on the quirky and arcane military ritual that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has revived:
“A security staffer takes the elevator to the seventh floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a special secretarial flag whenever Zinke enters the building. When the secretary goes home for the day or travels, the flag — a blue banner emblazoned with the agency’s bison seal flanked by seven white stars representing the Interior bureaus — comes down. “
-- Hill grill: On Thursday, Perry was grilled by lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee about a plan pending approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that would subsidize coal and nuclear power plants for the reliability they provide to the electric grid.
Some moments from his testimony:
- Answering questions about his plan to redefine how power plants are compensated for the electricity they produce, Perry seemed to backtrack and called it “just a first step.”
“For years, our fuel-secure generation resources have been strangled by regulation and squeezed by pricing rules that undervalue grid security,” Perry said, per the Washington Examiner. “These resources must be revived, not reviled. This proposal is just a first step in seeking to ensure that we truly have an energy policy that first and foremost protects the interests and needs of the American people.”
- He defended himself against criticism over recent private flights. “I am a frequent flier on Southwest and United,” Perry said. “The point is, I travel a lot to do my job. I do it in a way I think is thoughtful with taxpayers in mind. And I am going to continue to do my job.”
He added that he sometimes needs to take noncommercial flights to travel to nuclear labs that are in remote locations. “I will make a commitment to you that I will try to do it in the most thoughtful and reasonable way. Time to time, if I will be in those places in timely fashion, I may do it in a way that does expend taxpayer dollars.”
- He accidentally called Puerto Rico a “country.” After Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) asked Perry about his plans to restore the destroyed grid in the territory, the secretary responded: “Congresswoman Castor, you have just pointed out the real challenge that this country faces in dealing with the territory and the citizens of Puerto Rico. That is a country that already had its challenges before this storm...”
Castor interrupted Perry to correct that “It’s America. They’re American citizens, so it’s not a country.” Perry apologized for “misstating here and calling it a country.”
- Trump picks CEQ head: Trump taps a climate skeptic for top environmental post. Late Thursday, the president made his long-expected pick of Kathleen Hartnett-White, a former chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to head the Council on Environmental Quality, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney report. Her job will be to coordinates environmental and energy policies across the federal government. And like many top Trump officials, she’s highly skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change.
“I am not at all persuaded by the IPCC science that we are standing on some precipice,” Hartnett-White told The Post last October, referring to the urgency to combat global warming. “We’re not standing on a cliff from which we are about to fall off.”
In fact, her rhetoric takes it a step further than that of most climate doubters do. In an Austin American-Statesman op-ed last year, she wrote: “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and carbon is certainly not a poison. Carbon is the chemical basis of all life on earth… This falsely maligned natural gas is better known as the ‘gas of life’ because it is a necessary nutrient for plant growth — the food base of life on the planet earth.”
--Puerto Rico is now a political cleanup effort too: Democrats lambasted President Trump for his Thursday morning tweets signaling he may abandon the recovery effort in Puerto Rico.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that Trump’s tweet that federal relief workers could not stay on the island “forever” “was “heartbreaking." And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) charged that the president was treating Puerto Ricans differently from the hurricane victims in Texas and Florida:
FEMA needs to stay until the job is done and right now, it's not even close to done.— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) October 12, 2017
Why do you continue to treat Puerto Ricans differently than other Americans when it comes to natural disasters?— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) October 12, 2017
Here's how San Juan Mayor Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, now Trump's chief political foil over the disaster, responded:
@POTUS your comments about Puerto Rico are unbecoming of a Commander in Chief they seem more to come from a “Hater in Chief”.— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) October 12, 2017
Cruz's statement, from CBS News' David Begnaud:
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), who is of Puerto Rican heritage, grilled HUD Chief Ben Carson on the administration's response to Hurricane Maria:
The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Manuel Roig-Franzia have a dispatch from San Juan on how Americans in Puerto Rico reacted to Trump's tweets:
Jose Vazquez was listening to the radio this morning when the programming was interrupted by a special report.
The exasperated announcer read President Trump’s tweets about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, first responders and the military not being in Puerto Rico forever over the air as the other disc jockeys gasped in disbelief.
Vazquez couldn’t believe it either, he said, pausing. Well, actually, he could.
“We don’t want them here forever,” the 35-year-old said. “We need them until Puerto Rico normalizes. If they can leave soon, great. That would mean we are closer to a full recovery.”
Vazquez, who works for a government subcontractor that works with public housing clients, said the president was out of line and lacks the context to speak authoritatively about what is happening in Puerto Rico.
“This isn’t presidential,” he said.. “FEMA is not a gift, it’s insurance we pay for,” he said. “It’s their duty to respond. And we really need the help.”
-- The president’s tweets come as his approvals surrounding his response are slipping. From The Post’s Aaron Blake: “Just 36 percent say the federal government has done enough, while 55 percent say it hasn't. Negative views have increased since an AP-NORC poll a week ago showing 49 percent disapproved.”
--Meanwhile, help is actually on the way: The House voted Thursday to approve $36.5 billion in disaster relief funding to keep Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands afloat and to fund an effort to combat the wildfires out West. Lawmakers “called for swift passage of a bill that largely mirrors a White House demand for aid,” reports our colleague Mike DeBonis.
--But at least some Republican lawmakers are defending the commander-in-chief. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) called the response a “success story” and echoed the president’s tweets in a Thursday interview on CNN: "I think the point the President is making is that FEMA has a finite mission and a finite amount of time to be there," he said. "At some point, it's up to Puerto Rico to get themselves out of this situation and help their people."
And Trump tweeted again this morning, saying the people of Puerto Rico "know how bad things were" before the storms:
The wonderful people of Puerto Rico, with their unmatched spirit, know how bad things were before the H's. I will always be with them!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2017
-- Here’s a reality check from our colleague Philip Bump: We may never know how many people died in the aftermath of Maria.
The death toll — which was at 16 during President Trump’s visit to the territory, which he touted as impressively low — rose to 34 following his departure. BuzzFeed later reported that funeral homes on the island had bodies that were not included in the official count, some unrelated to the hurricane.
“The question that arises, then, is: How are those fatality counts determined? What counts as a death from the storm and what doesn’t? And to what extent could an administration eager to keep that figure low put its finger on the scale?,” Bump asks.
Joe Trainor, a professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Recovery Center, put it bluntly: “I think the answer is less satisfying than most people would expect. The reality is, we probably will never know.”
That’s in part because of how deaths and death certificates are reported. “Hurricanes” are not always listed as the cause of death. Timing is a factor, as is the type of death.
“The long and short of it is, no matter what system exists, there’s a lot of gray involved in how you will attribute any specific death during this time period,” Trainor told Bump, “whether you decide it’s directly or indirectly related to the event itself.”
-- Did businesses really hate the Clean Power Plan? Lost in the noise following the EPA's announcement to repeal the Clean Power Plan is this point made by Alana Semuels in The Atlantic — that the Trump administration's portrayal of the CPP as anathema to the business community just didn't square with reality. Yes, there were powerful business associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that opposed the CPP. But other big U.S. firms — including not just Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Google but also some energy firms like Dominion Resources — wrote letters and filings in favor of the plan. "The divide highlights something that is becoming increasingly obvious as the Trump administration rolls back various Obama-era policies," Semuels writes. "The business world isn’t a monolith, and some benefit from regulations that others detest."
-- And finally, three longreads for you this weekend:
-- A tale of two economies: The town of Ely, Minn., is home to abundant mining opportunities. “People do not end up here by accident. For most of the town’s history, the main reason they came was to make a living off the rocks,” writes Reid Forgrave for the New York Times Magazine. But the Land of 10,000 Lakes also attracts 150,000 visitors every year, who come for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the country’s most popular national wilderness area. "[T]here’s a generations-long rift in Ely — between those who believe minerals are the region’s greatest asset and those who believe clean waters are — that has been laid bare recently," Forgrave writes.
-- "Katrina brain:":Politico has a moving piece about the unseen, long-term effects that megastorms have on its survivors. Politico’s Christine Vestal writes that “public health officials say that, in the aftermath of an extreme weather event like a hurricane, the toll of long-term psychological injuries builds in the months and years that follow, outpacing more immediate injuries and swamping the health care system long after emergency workers go home and shelters shut down. That’s the rough reality that will soon confront regions affected by this year’s string of destructive hurricanes."
-- The alt-scientist: FiveThirtyEight profiles Arthur Robinson, a rogue chemist and failed politician who has turned his home into an extensive lab, which he calls the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. In it he has a fantastic equipment like a $2 million spectrometer, reports FiveThirtyEight’s Daniel Engbar. Robinson is also a leading climate-change skeptic financially backed by the Mercer family and what Engbar calls the grandfather in the "alt-science” movement." He has been shortlisted to become Trump's science adviser.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on October 18.
- Jeff Goodell discusses his book "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World" on October 24 with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
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