The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump administration stuck between two GOP sides on ethanol

with Paulina Firozi


The Environmental Protection Agency, in its ambitious effort to roll back the previous administration's energy and environmental policies, has had a significant stumble with Republicans lawmakers. On both sides of the ethanol debate.

In a September filing, EPA chief Scott Pruitt signaled the agency was interested in altering the amount of a certain biofuel that needed to be blended into the nation’s transportation fuel supply. That angered lawmakers representing ethanol interests, including the powerful Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, who worried they might be next.

So biofuel makers, who were preparing to meet the standards set by the Obama administration, came up with a plan. Last week, a group of Midwestern senators arranged a meeting with Pruitt. A few days later, Pruitt assured Grassley and others that he would forgo altering the renewable fuel standard (RFS).

Oil refiners, long interested in changing the RFS, were surprised by the reversal from an agency that now has someone at the helm who is considered an industry ally.

In politics, like in physics, there’s often an equal reaction to every action. This week, oil struck back.

On Thursday, nine Republican senators from six oil-refining states — Arizona, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wyoming — sent a letter to President Trump requesting a meeting with him about the RFS.

“Hard working Americans whose jobs depend on a strong independent refining industry deserve the opportunity for you to hear directly from their representatives on the potential impact of policies that could kill their jobs and destroy a critical component of our nation’s economy,” the senators wrote.

Independent refiners most affected by the renewable mandate were pleased with the letter. “We applaud the Senators for voicing concerns with the RFS and their commitment to a strong domestic refining industry," Chet Thompson, president of the lobbying group American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said in a statement. "The adverse impacts of these mandates on American families and workers have been clear for too long."

Giving the screw an extra turn, at least one of the signers, Ted Cruz of Texas, put a hold on the nomination of Bill Northey, Iowa’s agriculture secretary, who Trump picked for as undersecretary position in the Agriculture Department, preventing a vote on the Senate floor (for now).

The Senate Agriculture Committee had easily approved Northey. Politico first reported the holds on Thursday.

That delay holds up the potential ascension of Pat Grassley, an Iowa state representative and Grassley's grandson, who the senator had been pushing to get the soon-to-be-vacant top agriculture post in the Hawkeye State.

“There are mechanisms in the Senate that are aimed at encouraging dialogue and resolving different points of view," Grassley said in a statement. “I’d be happy to discuss Secretary Northey’s outstanding qualifications to be a top USDA official with any of my colleagues.”

The political dilemma for Trump is that both refining and farming states make up the coalition that put him in White House. Pleasing one side will upset the other.

“The senators’ action today isn’t surprising, given the number of their constituents that are in the refining business,” said Doug Whitehead, chief operating officer of the National Biodiesel Board. “Both the biofuel and refining industries have many members that helped elect President Trump.”

So far, lawmakers from biofuel-producing states have outmaneuvered representatives from oil and gas country. Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was forced to postpone the confirmation votes of four EPA nominees, suggesting that one or both of the Midwestern Republicans on the committee, Joni Ernst of Iowa or Deb Fischer Nebraska, was willing to buck the Trump administration over the RFS decision.

But it's Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, who may hold the most sway over Trump. In a series of phone calls starting this summer, Grassley reminded Trump of his promise to support ethanol when campaigning in Iowa during the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Trump, then a longshot political newbie, improbably placed second in that vote.

By Grassley's account, Trump seems to realize the importance of committing to ethanol in a state where corn is king. 

“He ran on a platform of supporting ethanol, and he was still for ethanol,” Grassley told The Washington Post in an interview this month, describing an August phone call that Trump initiated.

“He wanted me to tell the people,” Grassley said. And tell Iowans Grassley did — on Twitter.


-- Got plans to go to a National Park? You'll pay: The Post's Darryl Fears has a closer look at the price hike for entering national parks, which could in his words "make visiting a national park more expensive than a Six Flags ticket." Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke justifies the fee hike by saying the "infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration." Then why, nearly simultaneously, did the president's budget call for cutting $400 million from the parks?

The math: “At a rate of $70 million a year it would take more than 161 years for that extra annual revenue to wipe out the entire $11.3 billion backlog — to say nothing of the maintenance needs that would arise between now and then," The Post's Christopher Ingraham reports.

Still, overcrowding in national parks is one of the biggest problems inherited by Trump's Interior Department. Raising the price of admission is one way of dealing with it.

-- "Wacky & totally unhinged" attack: On Friday morning, Trump went after billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer: 

The Twitter tiff doesn't seem to have anything to do with Trump and Steyer's pronounced differences on climate issues. Instead, an ad in which Steyer calls for Trump's impeachment played Friday morning on one of Trump's favorite news programs, “Fox & Friends," Politico reported.

Here's the ad:

-- "Texas would be better off today as an independent republic:" Kathleen Hartnett-White, President Trump’s pick for a top environmental role, once said that Texas would be better off as an independent republic, specifically citing environmental regulations as examples of federal overreach, CNN reported.

Hartnett-White, a nominee to chair the administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, said so in an essay in 1995 in the former Texas Republic magazine for the 150th anniversary of Texas statehood. "Though I reverantly pledge allegiance to the United States, with regret I hazard the claim that Texas would be better off today as an independent republic free of the yoke of the present federal government." She went on to cite the Clean Water Act as "an excellent example of onerous unfunded mandate."

-- Another fox, another henhouse: President Trump has named a coal industry consultant to lead the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the pick, Steven Gardner, “an unbelievable asset to coal country and the entire team at the Department of the Interior.” Gardner has been the president of ECSI LLC, a Lexington, Ky.-based consulting firm. He was also a major critic of the Obama administration’s coal and environmental policies, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports. Sierra Club has called him a “horrible choice."

-- Door opens a bit wider to drilling: The budget resolution that narrowly passed the House on Thursday in a 216-to-212 vote paves the way for oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Senate resolution, which the House approved, includes instructions for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee to recommend ways to raise $1 billion in revenue, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee's chair, is expected to suggest oil and gas leasing to meet the requirement.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection released aerial footage shot on Oct. 17 of the eight prototype border walls near the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: US Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs)

-- So long, solar wall: Remember President Trump’s solar-paneled border walls? It looks like that’s not happening. Of the eight prototypes for border walls that have been installed near the U.S. border with Mexico in San Diego County this month, none include solar panels, The Post's Tracy Jan reports.

Citizens delivered a generator to an elder-care facility in Isabela, Puerto Rico on Oct. 26. (Video: Andres Rosa)

-- Puerto Rico is on the brink of an environmental crisis, argues Vox’s Umair Irfan, and although the issues regarding environmental health, pollution and waste on the island have been exacerbated following Hurricane Maria, he notes that “they’re a direct result of the island’s long-running energy crisis and financial crisis.”

Meanwhile, the parts of the Trump administration tasked with helping the U.S. territory dig out of the hole are facing their own question marks.

“EPA now has its work cut out for itself on Puerto Rico. The agency currently has 125 personnel on the ground on the island with a priority of restoring clean drinking water to residents,” Irfan writes. “The agency’s leadership, however, has sent some mixed signals about how it prioritizes environmental cleanup. EPA Administrator Pruitt is undoing the agency’s work on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, fulfilling a fossil fuel industry wish list. Pruitt is also backing major budget cuts and is aiming to reduce the agency’s headcount.”

New aerial footage from the U.S. National Weather Service shows the scale of damage wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. (Video: US National Weather Service (NWS))

More on Puerto Rico:

  • The official death toll from Hurricane Maria stands at 51, though experts believe the true count may be much higher. CNN visited all five of the operational funeral homes in just one town on the island to test the numbers. The Arecibo, for example, they counted a total of 114 deaths since the storm, with 25 that seemed likely related to Maria.

  • After five weeks, the National Weather Service finally released a damage assessment of the island this week with a drone-recorded video. Some areas are completely decimated, Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz explains, and nearly all trees have been stripped or have fallen.

  • ProPublica reports that FEMA is declining to release a 100-page plan drafted several years ago detailing how it would respond to a major hurricane in Puerto Rico. The agency is citing unexplained “potentially sensitive information,” per the report.

  • Most of the island is still in the dark. And new research found that the storm resulted in an estimated record of 1.25 billion hours of lost electricity to Americans, BuzzFeed reported.


-- National Weather Service "teetering on the brink of failure," labor union says: The Post's Jason Samenow has a grim report about the staff cuts the federal meteorological agency has weathered. Just take a look at the office serving the Capital Region: "[T]he team of 15 forecasters serving the Washington and Baltimore region will be short five full-time staff heading into the winter months, according to Ray Martin, a union representative who works there... Martin said staff morale is in the tank. 'Some people have been denied vacations, because there are not enough bodies to fill shifts,” he said. “I, myself, worked a 15-hour day about a week ago. You get a lot less sleep. You start to wonder if you’re safe on the road. You don’t see your loved ones, which eats into family life.' "

Eric Blake, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist, verified the story after it was published:

-- But U.S. meteorology faces an even more entrenched, systematic problem: Women are being passed over for ‘chief meteorologist’ jobs at an alarming rate, The Post's Angela Fritz reports. According to a recent study, "women make up just 29 percent of all TV weathercaster positions. That number in itself is alarming and unfortunate. But even if you attempt to rationalize that fraction, you can’t excuse the study’s next finding — that just 8 percent of women are in the 'chief meteorologist' role."


Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans will hold a legislative hearing on three water bills on November 2.

Pope Francis spoke from the Vatican via video conference with astronauts on the International Space Station:

Pope Francis spoke from the Vatican via video conference with astronauts on the International Space Station on October 26. (Video: YouTube/NASA via Storyful)

A snow leopard cub makes a public debut at the Bronx Zoo:

A female snow leopard cub made her public debut at the Bronx Zoo in New York City on Oct. 26. (Video: WSC/Bronx Zoo/YouTube)

Watch a humpback whale breach water off Long Island, via ABC News:

Watch Stephen Colbert's fake interview of Lou Dobb's interview of President Trump: