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The Energy 202: Western wildfires spark compromise on firefighting in Washington

with Paulina Firozi


On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators is planning to introduce legislation designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires like those that have raged this month out West.

Five Western senators — Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), James E. Risch (R-Idaho), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — are expected to propose a measure designed as a compromise between Republicans eager to snip red tape preventing forest managers from thinning overgrown woods and Democrats leery of giving the greenlight to timber companies looking to harvest federally owned forests.

At the heart of the compromise is a pilot program to stop wildfires in the ponderosa pines. Woods populated with the species of tree are among the most vulnerable to catching fire.

Under the senators' proposal, Congress would direct the Forest Service and Interior Department to treat these most at-risk forests. Under a streamlined approval process, forest managers would thin the pine forests near populated areas and do controlled burns in more remote regions. The bill also calls for reviews of any wildfire that burns over 100,000 acres to evaluate what to do in the future.

“It's time to create new tools to reduce fire risk and help better protect our communities‎,” Cantwell said. “By targeting our most vulnerable pine forests, this science-based pilot program gives the Forest Service tools to address fire in our most vulnerable forests and prioritizes cross-laminated timber.”

Some timber industry, firefighting and conservation groups — including the American Forest Resource Council, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Wildlife Federation — offered early endorsements of the legislation. 

“Senator Cantwell’s bipartisan, common-sense legislation will improve the quality and pace of forest restoration, help increase wildlife populations, and enhance watershed health—all of which will improve forest health and mitigate fire risks," Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. 

But it remains to be seen if other environmentalists usually allied with Cantwell and the other Democrats who have not scrutinized the bill will support it. 

Even more importantly for bill's fate, the House would need to back it, too.

In that chamber, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is pressing for the passage of a bill that would give the Forest Service even broader forest-management authority.

Under that proposal, from Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the federal government could under its own pilot program thin trees on plots of land 10,000 acres or smaller without undergoing time-consuming environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. 

Environmental groups blasted that bill as a giveaway to the timber industry while House Republicans insisted the streamlining was necessary to deal with the growing wildfires out West. A version of the bill passed the GOP-led House during the last session. In June, Bishop's committee approved the latest iteration. 

“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 told The Post in September. “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.”

On Thursday, Bishop's office said it was willing to hear the senators out.

"The continued attention reinforces the need for Congress to act," Bishop spokeswoman Katie Schoettler said. "We look forward to working with the Senate on incorporating parts of the Westerman bill." 

“We’re glad to see the Senate embracing environmental streamlining as a way to get our forests back on track," Bishop spokeswoman Katie Schoettler said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Senate on robust forest management legislation to prevent future wildfires and protect communities."

Cantwell's proposal came together in recent weeks as the Western wildfires showed no sign of abating. During the past week and a half, flames have scorched more than 200,000 acres in Northern California, killing more than 40 people and burning more than 3,500 buildings. Wildfires like this have burned portions of eight other states: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

One broad area of agreement between Republicans and Democrats is a need for overhauling how forest fires receive federal money. Right now, the Forest Service must siphon money from other parts of its budget to quash wildfires — fueling future forest fires since the agency has less money to take preventive measures, like clearing underbrush.

Both Westerman's bill, along with another from Wyden introduced in September, feature fixes to the funding practice, called "fire borrowing." 

But forest management is still a bone of contention — one that Cantwell's measure seems to smooth over by going small.

One important thing to note: The ponderosa pine pilot program would only encompass 1 percent of land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that is most susceptible to fire. While many of the wildfires out West this year indeed burned through the pines, the devastating fires around the Bay Area largely did not.


--Danger for the endangerment finding?: Some climate skeptics are champing at the bit for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to reverse the "endangerment finding" that underpins the EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. Pruitt hasn't taken the bait yet — legally, tilting at the EPA's scientific finding that manmade CO2 is harmful to human health because of the effects of climate change would be a legally quixotic task.

In an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox Business News, he hinted at his thinking:

Cavuto: You didn't buy the Obama administration argument at the time that 6,600 premature death cost have been avoided or 150,000 birth defects, asthma attacks and the like in children could have been avoid?

Pruitt: Neil, we regulate pollutants under National Ambient Air Quality Standards program... The fact of the matter is this: We're leading the nation, excuse me the world, with respect CO2 footprint in reductions. We're doing so through innovation and technology. We have got to ask and answer the question, what authority has Congress given EPA to engage in rulemaking to reduce CO2. The past administration didn't do that — our administration is?

What's happening here? Pruitt's statement is clearly a less full-throated endorsement of the endangerment finding than in his remakrs to Congress during his confirmation hearing. "I believe that the EPA, because of the Massachusetts vs. EPA case and the endangerment finding, has obligations to address the CO2 issue," he told senators in January.

Instead, what Pruitt seems to be doing is prodding Congress to undo the endangerment finding itself. It wouldn't be the first time he's made that suggestion. In March, Pruitt said: “Nowhere in the equation has Congress spoken. The legislative branch has not addressed this issue at all. It’s a very fundamental question to say, ‘Are the tools in the toolbox available to the EPA to address this issue of CO2, as the court had recognized in 2007, with it being a pollutant?’"

-- Backing the Bay Journal: Under Pruitt, the EPA cut funding to the Bay Journal, a monthly newspaper that covers environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay — doing so without much explanation to the publication beyond saying there has been “shift in priorities," The Energy 202 reported last month.

Now Maryland's two Democratic senators want to know why, too. Chris Van Hollen and  Benjamin L. Cardin, who serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote a letter to Pruitt saying, "We are aware of no other examples of high-performing grantees having their EPA funding revoked under similar circumstances, meaning that this action sets a dangerous nationwide precedent," noting the Bay Journal's good performance review this year.

-- Corn wars: On Wednesday, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) signaled that she was optimistic the EPA would, ultimately, not water down the Renewable Fuel Standard following a meeting between Midwestern senators representing corn- and soybean-growing states and Pruitt. "I do feel good about the direction we are headed," she said in a statement. 

The senators were already making things difficult for Pruitt. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) had placed a hold on the nominations of two of his EPA nominees, Bill Wehrum and Michael Dourson, citing Wehrum's opposition to the RFS as one reason for the decision. 

-- Speaking of Dourson...: Despite the hold, Michael Dourson, who was nominated to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, is already working for the agency. E&E News reported that Dourson works as an adviser to Pruitt.

E&E noted that Dourson is not the first Trump EPA nominee to advise Pruitt prior to being approved by the Senate. Susan Bodine, the president's pick to serve as assistant administrator of enforcement and compliance assurance, worked as a special counsel to Pruitt on compliance. At that time, Bodine had already been advanced by committee and was expected to be approved by the full Senate.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called out the Trump administration for the practice, saying in a statement that “the fact that he has already begun advising the EPA administrator shows contempt for the committee’s role in his nomination process and more importantly a profound disrespect to the families who are terrified about what toxic chemicals are going to do to their children’s health.”

What to know: The executive branch has pulled end runs like this before. After failing to get confirmation for Antonio Weiss at the Treasury Department, the Obama administration made Weiss a special counselor. Weiss served until the end of Obama’s turn, working to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt.

-- Line of the day: When members of the Trump administration travel to Germany next month as part of the United Nations climate change discussions, they will help write the rule book for the Paris agreement.

Though Trump has announced the United States plans to withdraw from the accord, it won't do so until 2020, making for an tricky meeting in Bonn. Or as Lisa Friedman of the New York Times put it: "Like a spouse who demands a divorce but then continues to live at home, the relationship between the United States and other parties to the Paris agreement is, at best, awkward."

-- More drip, drip about Trump's mining nominee: David Zatezalo, nominted to run the Mine Safety and Health Administration, once ran a coal-mining company that was found to have retaliated against a foreman who complained of harassment and unsafe conditions. ProPublica reported the incident on Tuesday, a day before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee voted to advance Zatezalo's nomination.

A foreman at a West Virginia mine complained in 2011 that he was the target of ethnic and gay slurs, after which the company, Rhino Energy WV, illegally retaliated against him and fired him after falsely accusing him of sexual harassment, ProPublica reported. After the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s findings, the company paid the fired foreman $62,500. Zatezalo retired from the coal company in 2014.

Zatezalo was also one of the top executives at the company at the time of a 2011 death as a result of a falling rock from a mine wall, prompting senators to write a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta asking for further information.

-- The latest from Puerto Rico: It’s been four weeks since Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane. The federal government has responded, bringing food, water and supplies to the territory. But there’s much left to do.

-- There are 1 million Americans on the island who still don’t have drinkable running water.

-- There are 3 million still without power. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has said that he hopes to have 95 percent of consumers' power restored by December.

(As a refresher, here’s an updating graphic from The Post’s Denise Lu and Chris Alcantara showing just how much of the 3,500 square island is in the dark.)

-- Rosselló will speak with President Trump on Thursday in a meeting at the White House that is closed to the press. The meeting comes as Congress considers additional relief funding for the territory.

-- Here’s a heartbreaking dispatch from the island from CNN of just one of the many hurricane victims still waiting for aid:

Today, Mayor Javier Garcia Perez uncovers a desperate case. 

Anita Ortiz is inside a shattered building, sitting on a bed that's soaking wet from the rain. Everything is wet in this house with no roof, and there's a thick smell of mold. 

"You finally came!" the woman and her family tell the mayor. Ortiz's sister-in-law cries on his shoulder. "We're so grateful that God sent you here," she tells him. "You see the conditions here. Please excuse me. The quickest help possible. Please! She needs it!"

Ortiz's family has been trying to get her to move to a shelter, but she's too attached to her home. She has been here since 1979 when her eldest son was born. He died in 2009 and his mother just won't leave the family home.

"We're going to start helping her now," Garcia says. "We're going to move her to a more secure location."

The Puerto Rico National Guard distributed thousands of gallons of water in Morovis on Oct. 17. (Video: Puerto Rico National Guard)

-- The latest on California: Amid a flurry of other tweets on Wednesday, President Trump wrote on Twitter about the wildfires in California:

-- Fire crews are still battling the more than dozen deadly fires across the northern part of the state that killed at least 42 people. As of Wednesday, 53 people are still missing in Sonoma County.

-- Officials hoped for cooler weather patterns this week, the Los Angeles Times reports, and Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said rain was possible as early as Thursday. Many of the largest fires were more than 60 percent contained on Wednesday, per Cal Fire.

-- Man, it's a hot one: If like many of us you’re still waiting for those mild autumn temperatures, this latest report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration might not surprise you: So far, Earth is experiencing its second-warmest year on record.

The year-to-date temperature through September 2017 was 1.57 degrees above the 20th century average, which was 57.5 degrees, CNBC reports. The top temperature on record in 2016 was just .23 degree higher and 2015’s third-place record was just .01 degree lower.


-- The New York Times explores concerns about BLM's plan to auction gas-and-oil drilling rights on 94,000 acres of land in Utah's Dinosaur National Monument. Critics worry about drill rigs and other eyesores that would be visible despite the plan to install light shields and noise mufflers to minimize the problem.

From the Times: “More gas and oil drilling is part of the Trump administration’s announced goals of what the president has referred to as “energy dominance.” The Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has said that ‘oil and gas production on federal lands is an important source of revenue and job growth in rural America.’

In response to the concerns expressed by [Utah Gov. Gary] Herbert and others, the B.L.M. has deferred action indefinitely on about 1,600 acres near the park that had been proposed for leases, and said that it will try to mitigate impacts at the monument from drilling activity on the remaining areas near the park. The governor’s office declared that it was satisfied by the changes."

Herbert tweeted last month:



  • The Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office holds a call on the latest developments in batteries and residential energy storage.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a conference on vehicle efficiency and electricity regulation.

Coming Up

  • The National Capital Area Chapter of the United States Association for Energy Economics hosts a presentation on Big Data and Weather Markets on Friday.
  • The Brookings Institution holds an event on Trump’s deregulatory agenda on Friday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on Puerto Rico's recovery on October 24.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on "State Based Management Solutions for Greater Sage Grouse Recovery" on October 25.

‘You’ll find out’: How Trump backs up controversial claims:

When asked to provide evidence for some of the controversial claims he’s made, President Trump has repeatedly replied: “You’ll find out.” (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Watch Denver Zoo elephants smash pumpkins:

Asian Elephants Bodhi and Groucho at the Denver Zoo pulverized 400-pound pumpkins as part of the annual “Squish the Squash” event on Oct. 18. (Video: Denver Zoo/YouTube)

From The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: "How to Solve the Harvey Weinstein Problem:"