In a starkly partisan Congress, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have been able to do a rare thing on Capitol Hill: work together across the aisle.
The chairwoman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources have together championed a comprehensive energy overhaul bill — one the pair successfully ushered through the Senate last session before it died in the House. They're taking another stab at it, having introduced a new version of the bill in June.
But President Trump's surprise election resurrected a long-dormant political skirmish in which both Murkowski and Cantwell are veterans — on opposing sides.
Since the 1980's, the congressional delegation from Alaska, whose government cuts residents an annual check from the state's oil revenue, has sought to open a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. But conservationists and their legislative allies, like Cantwell, say the area in question is too critical to Caribou and other wildlife to drill.
Folded into the budget bill being considered by the Senate this week is a provision endorsed by Murkowski meant to open a piece of the 19-million-acre refuge to energy development. The maneuver prevents Democrats from mounting a filibuster, allowing Congress to approve refuge drilling with a simply majority vote.
Late Thursday, the Senate voted to approve the budget, paving the way for GOP efforts to cut taxes and rejecting an amendment to remove the Arctic-drilling language.
In a floor speech Thursday before that vote, Murkowski told her colleagues they should view the budget instructions “as an opportunity to do something constructive for the country.”
“It’s about jobs and job creation. It’s about wealth and wealth creation,” she said, adding that drilling in the refuge is “not the only option” for how her panel could find $1 billion in new revenue. “But I will tell you it is the best option, and it’s on the table.”
She added that oil and gas companies have “reduced the footprint dramatically” on the ground, while expanding their subsurface reach dramatically. As a result, she argued, firms could drill in the refuge “with minimal disturbance to not only the land, but to the wildlife there.”
But Cantwell is at the forefront of trying to prevent that from happening. On Wednesday, Cantwell introduced an amendment seeking to strip that language from the budget bill.
That amendment failed in a largely party-line 48-52 vote, with only Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) breaking ranks.
ANWR is testing the collegiality typically displayed by the two senators. Former officials for the Energy and Interior Departments — both overseen by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — say Cantwell and Murkowski have among the best relationships between a chair and ranking committee member in Congress.
“Senator Murkowski and Senator Cantwell have an unusually constructive, collaborative, mutually respectful relationship,” Susan F. Tierney, former assistant secretary for policy at Energy, wrote in an email, adding "especially these days."
David Hayes, former deputy secretary of the Interior, agreed that the senators “do have a good relationship.” He added that, when it comes to the Arctic refuge debate, “you can have a good relationship and still disagree.”
There is a long tradition of bipartisan cooperation on the energy committee, often because the leaders from both parties are from producing states, said William F. Hederman, formerly a senior advisor to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. (Alaska has large oil reserves beyond just the Arctic refuge and Washington is the largest hydroelectric generator in the United States.)
"This harkens back to the ancient times when senators had friendships that were not based on party," Hederman added.
Congress has not passed a comprehensive energy package since 2005, and in the 12 intervening years much has changed in the nation's energy landscape. Murkowski and Cantwell's proposed update to the 2005 bill attempts, for example, to prepare the electric grid for emerging cybersecurity threats and the growth of renewable energy sources.
Like most compromise legislation, there is give-and-take. The energy bill would streamline the process by which the federal government approves pipelines and export terminals for liquefied natural gas — to the consternation of some environmental groups. But the bill also would renew a favorite punching bag of Republicans, the Energy Department's loan guarantee program that helps finance innovative energy companies.
But on the Arctic refuge issue, disagree they do.
Alaska's senior senator is the second generation of the Murkowski family to try to bring energy development to ANWR. For decades, her father, Frank Murkowski, represented Alaska in the Senate and pushed similar language. In 1995, with GOP majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time in four decades, Republicans passed a budget with pro-drilling language — only to be vetoed by President Clinton.
Soon after Lisa Murkowski took over her father's seat in 2002, the Arctic refuge debate was revived when Republicans again controlled both chambers of Congress. But in 2005, when Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) attached an ANWR provision to a defense bill, Cantwell successfully filibustered it.
Cantwell had harsh words for Republicans following last night's budget vote. "Republicans are dropping the ball on moving critical energy legislation on cybersecurity and energy infrastructure," she said in a statement, referring to the comprehensive energy bill. "Instead they are intent on killing one of the last truly wild arctic Serengeti’s in the U.S. by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil that no one needs. Republicans are heading in the wrong direction."
Murkowski's office has yet to comment.
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-- Corn wars, cont’d: Corn won. Late Thursday, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) announced that Republican senators from the Midwest have received "key commitments" from Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt not to water down requirements for how much corn-based ethanol and other biofuels need to be mixed into the nation's gasoline and diesel supply. In a letter to lawmakers, Pruitt said "preliminary analysis suggests" that biofuels volume will need to be equal to or greater than previously proposed amounts.
The politics: Some oil-and-gas companies have lobbied to weaken or eliminate the Renewable Fuel Standard. But as has happened before, interests representing various biofuels banded together to block any such weakening at the hands of Pruitt. Iowa's other senator, Charles E. Grassley, has repeatedly reminded the president of the promise he made to Iowans ahead of the state's caucus to support ethanol. That was enough to get Trump to press Pruitt to say he would support the RFS too.
-- A “kind of paganism:” Kathleen Hartnett-White, President Trump’s pick for a top environmental role, once called believing in global warming a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites,” CNN reports.
Hartnett-White, a nominee to chair the administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, said on an online conservative radio show in September 2016: “There's a real dark side of the kind of paganism — the secular elites' religion now — being evidently global warming.”
This isn't the colorful climate commentary to be heard from Hartnett-White, who has long expressed skepticism about the well established science of global warming. “Our flesh, blood and bones are built of carbon,” she wrote in 2016. “Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the gas of life on this planet, an essential nutrient for plant growth on which human life depends.”
-- A bipartisan rejection: A bipartisan group of former members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are opposing Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to bolster coal and nuclear power plants — and potentially upend electricity markets in the process. The Post's Steven Mufson reports: “The former commissioners said that Perry was seeking to reverse a quarter century of FERC reforms that have created a marketplace for electric power generators and that many of the coal plants he is aiming to help have no advantage when it comes to reliability.”
“His focus is clearly coal, and there are a lot of dirty coal plants that are not competitive in today’s energy markets,” Elizabeth Moler, a former FERC chairwoman, said in an interview. "To me he’s effectively proposing to subsidize them and put a tax on consumers in doing so. It’s a tax in different clothing. It’s going to cost customers more money to run dirty old coal plants.”
The ex-commissioners from both parties joining hands here is yet another example of the odd bedfellows created by Perry's proposal. Perry also managed to unite oil, gas, wind and solar lobbying groups against him too.
Here's the latest on Puerto Rico's recovery:
-- “I would say it's a 10:" President Trump awarded himself a 10 out of 10 grade on the federal response to Hurricane Maria. The president told the press, as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló sat beside him in the Oval Office, that “I would say it’s a 10.”
Maria “was in many ways worse than anything people have ever seen,” he added. “It went right through the middle of the island, right through the middle of Puerto Rico.”
When Trump asked Rosselló, “Did we do a great job?” (not, perhaps tellingly, "Are we doing a great job?"), the governor said, “You responded immediately.”
Trump’s self-evaluation stands at odds with public perception. A CNN poll published this week found that less than half of Americans — 44 percent —- approve of the federal response to the storm, down 20 points since September. But some disaster relief experts say the federal government is responding well. Indeed, former Federal Emergency Management Administration director James Lee Witt told The Health 202 he would give the Trump administration an A-plus for how it’s responding to all the hurricanes' aftermath.
Rosselló tweeted later on Thursday:
Here's a bit of our colleague Aaron Blake's analysis of the exchange between the leaders:
Rosselló is a politician, and judging only by this answer, he's a pretty good one. Trump put him on the spot, asking him a direct question and hoping Rosselló would provide him a full endorsement.
But then Roselló ... didn't. The things he said weren't critical and won't cause problems with Trump (which Rosselló seems to be studiously trying to avoid), but his response was also hardly a full-throated bit of vouching for the federal response. Trump asked him if the federal response was “great,” and Rosselló's response was not “yes”; it was basically commending the federal government for recognizing the situation right away and communicating effectively.
-- Lawmakers seem to agree that more help is needed: Senators are working toward adding funding to a House-passed disaster-relief bill.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Thursday that passing the House $36.5 billion relief proposal is not enough.
“It’s not so much the dollar amount, it’s really how those funds would be accessed,” Rubio said, reports the Miami Herald. “For example, it requires... a damage assessment. They’re not going to be able to do this in a timely fashion while they’re trying to restore power and get water and food to people. [Puerto Ricans] are today, four weeks after the storm, where Florida was 48 hours after the storm. They’re still dealing with the acute, immediate challenges.”
Trump signaled willingness to work with Congress on further aid. “I have given my blessing to Congress, and Congress is working with you and your representatives on coming up with a plan and a payment plan and how it’s all going to be funded. Because you are talking about some substantial numbers,” Trump told Rosselló at the meeting, per Reuters.
-- Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) will support the House passed disaster aid package after “personal assurances from the White House that more money will be delivered next month.”
"The president strongly indicated his preference that a second appropriations request, which will come in November, will include funds specifically to aid Texans recovering from Harvey,” Cornyn told reporters, per Politico.
-- On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced that he would travel to the island instead of speaking at the national convention put on by the organizers of the Women’s March. The change of plans comes as the convention received criticism for picking him to address the convention’s opening night.
-- Meanwhile, actual progress inches forward. The backup diesel generators on the island have started to break down, Bloomberg reports. APR Energy, a Jacksonville, Fla.- based company, has shipped two fuel-powered generators to the island to help restore some of the power. Just over 21 percent of customers have had service restored in the month since Maria, per the local government.
The turbines will be able to produce 50 megawatts of power with natural gas, restoring power for more than 5,000 households and businesses, the Miami Herald reported. As that will also help stabilize the damaged grid, power will be turned back on for about 50,000 people, the report added.
-- APR Energy also has plans to provide a turbine for the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's worth noting that it's also been more than a 40 days since St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands has had power, per CNN.
-- Are there better ways to power Puerto Rico?: Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson have floated bringing renewable energy sources to the island. Vox’s Umair Irfan explores why that won’t necessarily be an easy task.
-- Water update: The water from three wells at a Superfund site in Dorado is safe to drink, CNN reported Thursday. The network had tests run by the Virginia Tech Water Quality Lab and found one well had “only trace amounts of PCE, an industrial chemical” and two other wells “showed no signs of industrial contamination.” CNN added that the EPA also took samples from the Superfund site and has not yet released its results.
-- Here's headline you don't see everyday: "At chapel where nuns protest a pipeline, 23 arrested, including several in their 70s and 80s." The Post's Julie Zauzmer elaborates:
Months ago, when the nuns and the activists built a chapel in the proposed path of a Pennsylvania pipeline, they said that if the bulldozers came to tear up the nuns’ land and put a pipe beneath it, they might stand in the way of the construction equipment to block it with their bodies and their prayers.
That day arrived on Monday.
In a dramatic showdown in a cornfield, owned by Catholic sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, 23 people stood holding hands and singing hymns until they were arrested and charged with defiant trespassing.
Eleven of those arrested are in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
-- Hurricane Harvey is barely in the rearview mirror, and ExxonMobil is already expanding its presence on the Gulf Coast. CNBC reports that the company "began production at a new petrochemical facility in Mont Belvieu, Texas, just two months after Hurricane Harvey pummeled the U.S. Gulf Coast and hobbled the U.S. refining and specialty chemicals hub."
-- Here are some startling statistics: Worldwide pollution contributes to about 9 million deaths every year. That’s one in six people, according to a new study published Thursday. The Post's Brady Dennis notes that “if accurate, that means pollution kills three times more people each year than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, with most of those deaths in poor and developing countries.”
Dennis adds: “The two-year project, which relied on data from researchers in more than 130 countries documenting the causes of disease and premature deaths in recent decades, found that poor air quality was the most significant pollution-related killer. That includes both outdoor pollution tainted by mercury, arsenic and other harmful particulates, and household air dirtied by the burning of wood, dung and other organic materials. The result: An estimated 6.5 million deaths in 2015 from heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and other respiratory problems.”
-- Save the coffee: A new variety of coffee that can withstand the effects of climate change could be the thing that saves your caffeine fix. Our colleague Caitlin Dewey reports that scientists are working to develop varieties of coffee that will withstand higher climates. From Dewey:
Rising temperatures are expected to shrink the available growing land in many of these countries, said Christian Bunn, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture who has analyzed the shift in coffee regions. Warmer air essentially “chases” coffee up to cooler, higher altitudes — which are scarce in Brazil and Zimbabwe, among other coffee-growing countries…
These sorts of changes will pose problems for many crops. But coffee is particularly vulnerable, scientists say, because it has an unusually shallow gene pool. Only two species of coffee, arabica and robusta, are currently grown for human consumption. And farmers traditionally haven’t selected for diversity when breeding either plant — instead, essentially, they’ve been marrying generations of coffee with its close cousins.
-- Don’t hold your breath for a polar vortex: For the third year in a row, the National Weather Service is predicting a warmer-than-normal winter for most of the country, Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow reports. And the warming of the entire climate system plays a part. Samenow writes: “Climate warming from rising concentrations of carbon dioxide is exerting an effect on winter temperatures, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. ‘It does, undoubtedly, play a role,’ he said in a call with reporters. ‘The increase in CO2 factors into our model forecast.’”
-- Where are you, Mr. President?: Trump has no immediate plans to tour the wildfire devastation in California, the Associated Press reports. And Californians have begun to notice. The San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial Sunday titled, “California burns: Where’s the president?” An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times published Thursday reads: “Judging from his response to the wildfires, Trump doesn’t care about California.”
Trump did tweet expressing his support for the state on Wednesday.
-- Meanwhile, about 7,000 homes and buildings have been scorched in the northern part of the state. The state’s insurance commissioner said that preliminary estimates show the total losses exceed $1 billion, a number which will probably increase, per the AP.
-- More than 15,000 people were still under evacuation orders on Thursday, down from the high of 100,000 last Saturday. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) issued an executive order Wednesday to hasten recovery efforts, which includes extending “the state’s prohibition on price gouging during emergencies until April 2018 and expedites hiring of personnel for emergency and recovery operations,” the AP reports.
-- Amazon on Thursday announced the launch of its 253-megawatt wind farm in Scurry County, Tex. The facility has more than 100 turbines at more than 300-feet tall, CNBC reported. The Texas facility brings Amazon to 18 wind and solar projects nationwide, with another nearly three dozen planned. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, tweeted this:
- The National Capital Area Chapter of the United States Association for Energy Economics hosts a presentation on big data and weather markets.
- The Brookings Institution holds an event on Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
- The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on Puerto Rico's recovery on Oct. 24.
- The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on “Empowering State Based Management Solutions for Greater Sage Grouse Recovery” on Oct. 25.
Senate passes Republican-proposed budget:
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Watch firefighters rescue a whale stranded in a harbor in Marseille, France:
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The case of the disappearing bugs: