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The Energy 202: Government watchdog wants Trump administration to address price tag of climate change

with Paulina Firozi


A congressional watchdog has a warning for the Trump administration: start paying attention to the price tag of climate change.

The new report, which was requested two years ago by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), is slated to be released today by the Government Accountability Office.

Citing two large-scale studies of the cost of climate change in the United States, the new report concludes that the economic effects of climate change will be widespread — both geographically and across sectors of the economy.

One estimate cited in the report said that the economic effects of climate change in the six sectors of the economy could reach 0.7 to 2.4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product annually by the end of this century. Deaths from higher temperatures could cost the United States up to $506 billion per year by the 2099. Lost labor productivity could cost $150 billion annually by century's end.

The report was issued at the end of September and doesn't tally the collective economic damages of the devastating California wildfires, or the damage wrought by Hurricanes Maria in Puerto Rico, as well as Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively. But it does say that the administration needs to take concrete steps to guard against the costs of significant extreme weather events in the future.

“The main takeaway in this report is that based on studies that we reviewed and experts that we spoke with, climate change could result in significant economic effects in the U.S., and that it could affect some regions of the country more than others,” said J. Alfredo Gomez, director of natural resources and environment at the GAO and one of the report’s authors.

Those economic effects include infrastructure damage from sea-level rise along the coasts, lower shellfish harvests in the Northwest, higher energy demand and more wildfires in the Southwest and more heat-related deaths in the Southeast. 

Though calculating the economic cost of climate change is an “evolving science,” according to Robert Kopp, a Rutgers University professor of climate science, “it would make sense for climate change to be taken into account in decision-making.”

Kopp did not help prepare the GAO report, but he did co-write the 2014 American Climate Prospectus from the Rhodium Group, one of the two assessments the agency relied upon to make its recommendation. The other assessment was the Environmental Protection Agency's ongoing Climate Change Impacts and Risks Analysis.

The GAO’s report, Kopp said, “is a fair assessment of the literature.”

The report arrives just as Congress and the White House have begun negotiations for an annual budget — one that is designed to slash taxes and could shrink government revenue. Congress is currently debating a $36.5 billion relief package for Puerto Rico and other natural disasters that the House passed last night and is being considered in the Senate.

“My colleagues no longer have to take it from me—the Government Accountability Office tells us climate change will cost taxpayers more than a half a trillion dollars this decade, and trillions more in the future unless we mitigate the impacts." Cantwell said in a statement. “We cannot ignore the impact of climate change on our public health, our environment, and our economy," Collins added in her own.

But so far, the executive branch and Congress, both controlled by Republicans, have shown few signs they are willing to heed such warnings.

President Trump has signed executive orders rolling back the previous administration’s efforts to address the financial risks posed by climate change, including one asking recipients of federal funds to strongly consider placing new buildings beyond the reach of rising waters.

The GAO does not single out any particular executive branch action. Instead, the agency makes a broad recommendation to the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Management and Budget and other White House offices that they “should use information on the potential economic effects of climate change to help identify significant climate risks facing the federal government and craft appropriate federal responses.”

The scope of the GAO’s assessment was not limited to the current administration, and the executive branch under Obama was not spared. “The federal government has not undertaken strategic government-wide planning to manage climate risks by using information on the potential economic effects of climate change to identify significant risks and craft appropriate federal responses,” the report concluded.

In 2013, the GAO said the federal government should prioritize limiting its fiscal exposure to climate change. But its most recent report acknowledges the inherent uncertainty of calculating such costs. The estimates are made by feeding data into both economic and climate models, compounding the potential uncertainty.

Still, by limiting the scope of the report to climate-change effects in the United States, the GAO was conservative. It did not consider, for example, the cost that conflict fueled by climate change abroad may impose on the United States.

Researchers making the calculations say they have made significant headway in recent years.

"We've gone from a world in the 1990's when people we're picking numbers out of the air to one in which we're carefully and systematically going through data sets and extracting signal from noise to understand how climate change is impacting the economy," said Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley who advised GAO.


--  This could be big: Puerto Rico signed a $300 million contract with a small Montana-based company called Whitefish Energy to rebuild the territory’s electrical infrastructure instead of using “mutual aid” arrangements to work with other U.S. utilities, The Post's Steven Mufson, Jack Gillum, Aaron C. Davis and Arelis R. Hernández report.

Does the name "Whitefish" sound familiar? You may remember it as the small Montana town Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from. On the day Hurricane Maria made landfall, the two-year-old company had just two full-time employees. 

"The power authority, also known as PREPA, opted to hire Whitefish rather than activate the “mutual aid” arrangements it has with other utilities. For many years, such agreements have helped U.S. utilities — including those in Florida and Texas recently — to recover quickly after natural disasters," The Post reports. "The unusual decision to instead hire a tiny for-profit company is drawing scrutiny from Congress and comes amid concerns about bankrupt Puerto Rico’s spending as it seeks to provide relief to its 3.4 million residents, the great majority of whom remain without power a month after the storm."

Its chief executive, Andy Techmanski, and Zinke acknowledge knowing one another — but only, Zinke’s office said in an email, because Whitefish is a small town where “everybody knows everybody.” Zinke’s office added the interior secretary had no role in Whitefish securing the contract for work in Puerto Rico. 

-- Extra security: EPA head Scott Pruitt is boosting his security measures again. CNN reports that his security detail is in the process of expanding to an “unprecedented” level by hiring a dozen more agents. The boost comes in an effort to provide 24-hour protection for Pruitt as threats against him have increased, per the report. Additions to the detail would cost at least $2 million in salaries alone, with additional costs for training, equipment and travel. Patrick Sullivan, the agency’s assistant inspector general, told CNN that the office has “at least four times -- four to five times the number of threats against Mr. Pruitt than we had against Ms. McCarthy,” in reference to Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA chief under President Obama.

-- Bye-bye glider rule: The EPA is looking to repeal strict emission standards for truck components that are meant to curb air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. The agency issued a proposal to rescind the standards over the weekend after Pruitt signaled in May that he would reexamine the rule “in light of significant issues raised,” The Post's Juliet Eilperin reports. The Obama-era regulation was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 and was widely embraced by the trucking industry, Eilperin notes. The rule would have applied the standards now used for heavy-duty trucks to new truck components, called gliders (the front of the truck) and trailers (the back).

-- “Let us do our job:” Protesters gathered outside a conference in Rhode Island after the Trump administration blocked some of its scientists from presenting climate change research.

The conference marked the end of a three-year report on the status of Narragansett Bay.

John King, a University of Rhode Island oceanography professor who chairs the science advisory committee of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, told The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin that the move politicized the report.  

“What I’d say to [EPA] Administrator [Scott] Pruitt is our job is to inform policy. Hopefully, it becomes good policy,” King told the crowd on Monday. “Let us do our job, without fear of losing our jobs. I hope in that spirit, we can move forward from what has occurred.”

-- Wildfire legislation is hot right now: Four GOP senators introduced a draft bill on Monday aiming to prevent and alleviate wildfires by making it easier to remove wood and brush from forest areas.  The group of Western Republicans — John Barrasso (Wyo.) Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), John Thune (S.D.) and Steve Daines (Mont.) — introduced the bill after another bipartisan group of senators brought forward their own wildfire-management legislation last week. (The Energy 202 wrote about the bipartisan bill on Thursday.)

What's the difference between the bills? Barrasso's legislation makes broader use of so-called "categorical exclusion" than the bill from Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), James E. Risch (R-Idaho), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), making it easier for federal agencies to remove brush and trees from at-risk forests without having to go through environmental review. It also creates a pilot program for environmentalists and feds to resolve disputes though a binding arbitration process — rather than through the courts. Environmental groups have objected such proposals in the past.

What's it all mean? The flurry of wildfire proposals this month shows that Western senators want to bring something back to constituents to help with the problem during this intense wildfire season.

-- And then there were two: Nicaragua on Monday signed the Paris climate agreement, per Agence France-Presse, leaving Syria and the United States as the lone countries that do not support the agreement. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced last month that he would join the landmark pact. 

-- Here's the latest on Puerto Rico:

  • More than 75 percent of Puerto Rico is still in the dark: And it has been for about 34 days. Prices for generators have gone through the roof, Vox reports, and in areas where authorities install floodlights in common areas, officers monitor the equipment through the night so it won’t get taken.
  • Disaster package delayed: Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are demanding that the debt-laden territory be permanently exempt from the Jones Act, and tried to hold up the disaster relief package in the process. The 1920 shipping law requires any goods being shipped between U.S. coasts to be taken by U.S.-owned and -operated ships, a requirement that many Puerto Ricans have long argued adds to the cost of living there.
  • Still, the Senate was able to advance the legislation: The Senate voted 79-16 to advance the House-passed bill that would provide $36.5 billion to fund hurricane relief, wildfire recovery and a flood insurance program. The bill includes $18.7 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, $16 billion for the national flood insurance program, $576.5 million toward wildfire recovery efforts and $1.27 billion for food assistance for Puerto Rico, per The Hill.

Clinton pushes back on Russian uranium deal reports: 'Baloney' (The Hill)

Lawmakers ask Jeff Sessions about prosecuting climate activists for damaging pipelines (Washington Examiner)


-- “The same mistakes we made 40 years ago:” There have been more than two dozen accidents at BP’s oil and gas operations in Alaska this year, BuzzFeed News reported over the weekend. And five of those accidents put the lives of dozens of workers at risk, prompting the company to reevaluate its safety procedures. Last month, two workers responded to a report of faulty equipment at a drilling site and accidentally caused a leak of 1,200 kilograms of gas. Though they escaped uninjured, an ignition source could have caused a deadly explosion.

BuzzFeed's Zahra Hirji and Jason Leopold wrote: “The company was concerned enough to take the drastic step of removing many workers from Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil and gas field in the state, for the first 12 days of October. This break, and the preceding accidents, likely cut into BP’s bottom line, which in Alaska hit $85 million in 2016. During the recent pause, staff took part in large workshops and smaller team-level discussions focused on improving safety.”

Coal industry tells FERC the last 7 years was a catastrophe it must now fix (Washington Examiner)

Pruitt’s claim that the U.S. is ‘leading the world’ in ‘C02 footprint’ reductions (Nicole Lewis)


-- New York City’s ability to survive hurricanes could depend on the Antarctic ice sheet. The Post's Chris Mooney reports:

Using computer projections to simulate thousands of storms in potential future climates, researchers found that storms would be more likely to swerve away from the city. The trouble is the storms that do approach will, on average, be more powerful. And all storms that hit New York, regardless of their power, will start at a higher baseline, as they’ll be traveling on seas that have risen due to climate change.

The result is that the risk of a storm similar to Hurricane Sandy, albeit with a slightly smaller storm surge, has gone from a one-in-500-years event in 1800 to a one-in-25-years event today. By the period between 2030 and 2045, such storms could become a one-in-five-years event, according to the projections.

-- Nowhere near the last straw: Our colleagues Jessica Contrera and Caitlin Gibson have written the anti-ode to the plastic drinking straw. They write that advocates are pushing for people to quit using straws though they’re still the standard in many restaurants and establishments:

Dear good person: Straws are not recyclable.

They will sit, defiantly undecomposed, in landfills.

They will float out into the clear blue sea.

They will end up in a viral YouTube video, lodged in the bloody nostril of an endangered sea turtle.

So goes the message of a burgeoning movement that makes a specific, surprisingly bold request: Please stop using disposable plastic straws.

Six months later, the March for Science tries to build a lasting movement (Sarah Kaplan)



  • The American Wind Energy Association's offshore wind power conference begins.

Coming Up

  • The Cato Institute holds an event on “Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela” featuring author Raúl Gallegos on Tuesday.The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs holds a legislative hearing on Indian Land Bills on Wednesday.
  • The American Wind Energy Association Wind Energy Finance and Investment conference starts Wednesday.
  • The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a women in leadership luncheon on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017 on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on Empowering States in Sage Grouse Management on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a business meeting on Wednesday on the nominations of Michael Dourson to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, William Wehrum to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Matthew Leopold to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of General Counsel, David Ross to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, Paul Trombino III to be administrator for the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration and Jeffery Baran to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • George Mason University’s School of Policy and Government holds a symposium on grid security on Wednesday.
  • The Inter-American Dialogue hosts the Latin America Energy Conferenceon Wednesday.
  • The American Gas Association’s Natural Gas Roundtable is set for Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to examine Cyber Technology and Energy Infrastructure on Thursday.

Refusing to evacuate, one man fought this fire alone to save his house:

One man refuses to evacuate during wildfires so he can save his home (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Pets get into the Halloween spirit: 

Halloween is just around the corner but these pets are already rocking their costumes. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

French President Emmanuel Macron's dog Nemo was filmed urinating on a fireplace at the Elysee Palace during a meeting with three junior ministers:

French President Emmanuel Macron's dog Nemo was filmed urinating on a fireplace at the Elysee Palace during a meeting with three junior ministers on Oct. 18. (Video: Reuters)

Bill O'Reilly is asked about sexual harassment on CBS This Morning: