The name Andrew Wheeler, a former policy staffer for Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) turned coal and nuclear lobbyist, came up back in March as a possible choice to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But it took until October for Wheeler’s nomination to the No. 2 post at the EPA to become official. On Wednesday, after a long wait, Wheeler will get a hearing in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Kathleen Hartnett-White, another controversial nominee for a key environmental post running the administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, will also get a committee hearing Wednesday.
They are not alone in the queue. Delays in Congress and at the Trump White House have slowed the filling of energy and environmental policy posts below the Cabinet level to a trickle compared with past administrations. And at least one of those Cabinet members has grown frustrated by the lack of staff directly under him.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is waiting for four nominees to be confirmed by the Senate, vented his frustrations in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“These nominees have been forced to wait significantly longer than either the Obama or Bush Administration’s first-term nominees,” Zinke wrote in a letter sent Tuesday.
For example, Brenda Berman, nominated to be commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, has waited 132 days to be confirmed, Zinke said. Picks by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for the same position each waited only about a month before the Senate signed off on them.
Another nominee for an assistant secretary position at Interior, Susan Combs, has waited 120 days while the Obama and Bush picks waited only 28 and 59 days, respectively, the secretary said.
Zinke blamed the delays on "holds" by senators -- a secret weapon in which an individual senator can delay a nomination, even for reasons unrelated to concerns over that appointee's credentials or background.
“Many Senators continue to work behind the guise of the cloakroom, putting random and unknown holds on these nominations, leaving us with leadership gaps and no way to know which Senator objected or how to rectify his/her concerns,” Zinke wrote.
Democrats have used holds to stymie EPA nominees, as well. In addition to Wheeler, the agency is awaiting full Senate confirmation votes for five picks, including Michael Dourson to run the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention; and Bill Wehrum to run the Office of Air and Radiation.
While some holds are made discreetly, others are publicized with great fanfare. For example, last month Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) placed holds on Dourson and Wehrum, both of whom have done scientific and legal work for the chemical industry as it sought to push back against past EPA regulations.
“My constituents needed experts such as yourself to stand up for them and their health rather than running cover for polluters who are wealthy and willing to poison our children as they put profits first,” Duckworth told Dourson at his committee hearing.
That is not the only stalling tactic Democrats have deployed to delay the progression of a string of mid-level, industry-connected nominees they view as intent on undermining the regulatory role of the agencies in which they would serve.
By refusing to shorten debate time on the Senate floor over nominees that will eventually be voted into office, Senate Democrats have successfully reduced the rate at which Trump and Republicans can fill executive posts. Remember, that Democratic protests are symbolic as Republicans can approve Trump nominees to the executive and judicial branch with a simple majority vote.
Despite robust Democratic opposition, the White House has also been slow to send nominees to Capitol Hill for consideration, as appears to be the case with Wheeler at the EPA.
By the beginning of August, Trump had put forward only 279 nominees, 124 of whom had been confirmed by Aug. 3, according to an analysis by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. By contrast, Obama had nominated 433 individuals with 310 confirmed by that date in 2009.
Many Trump picks, such as those coming from industries they will soon regulate, need to disclose and untangle financial holdings, lengthening the nomination process. Many other potential nominees who would normally want to serve in a Republican administration have steered clear of the Trump White House, itself staffed with many who have never worked in government and are new to figuring out how government actually works.
Altogether, those delays have left the EPA and Interior departments understaffed as they seek to implement the Trump energy and environmental agenda -- which largely involves rolling back Obama regulations in these areas.
"These delays are hampering DOI's ability do the work of the people we are all supposed to be serving," Zinke wrote.
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-- Trump vs. the world, Part I: Syria told world representatives gathered for an annual conference in Bonn, Germany that it intends to sign the Paris climate accord, leaving the United States as the one country that has disavowed the deal, The Post's Brady Dennis reports. The Syrian Arab News Agency reported that lawmakers in Damascus last month “approved a draft law on ratifying Syria’s accession to the Paris Climate Agreement.”
The move follows Nicaragua’s announcement in September that it plans to join the accord after it had declined to sign on in 2015. Nicaragua’s vice president, Rosario Murillo, told a local radio station in September that the deal “is the only instrument we have in the world that allows the unity of intentions and efforts to face up to climate change and natural disasters.” (The Energy 202 wrote about the decision here.)
Remember: Mother Jones’s Rebecca Leber makes an important point. Although President Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the agreement, the United States is still technically part of the deal.
Leber writes: "Following this announcement came nearly universal outcry that Syria’s actions will leave the United States as the only country in the world not part of a global climate accord, which commits countries to ramping up action on greenhouse gas emissions... I’m sorry, Internet, but this narrative is just wrong. The US is still technically part of the Paris agreement." At least until the United States is allowed to formally withdraw in 2020.
Trump vs. the world, Part II: President Trump has not been invited to a climate summit that will take place in Paris next month with more than 100 other world leaders.
The Associated Press noted that leaders who are invited are those who are “especially committed” to the Paris climate accord, per a French diplomatic official. An invitation will instead be sent to the United States, according to the report, “at a diplomatic level.”
-- Wildfire victims burned by tax proposal: House Republicans' tax bill would get rid of the deduction for personal losses for victims of wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters, the Los Angeles Times reported, but would be kept for victims of the recent spate of hurricanes.
The Times added that the deduction would be available for victims of last month’s massive wildfires in Northern California if the losses are included in 2017 tax returns.
“Do you really think that we’re going to be able to go in, assess all of the costs, get everything cleaned up, figure out where people are going to stand, in time to do their taxes?” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) told colleagues on the House Ways and Means Committee, per the report. “It’s not going to happen.”
Chris Coursey, the mayor of Santa Rosa, which had some of the hardest-hit areas after last month’s fires, wrote to Thompson charging that the move “smacks of political favoritism.” Hurricane Harvey, one of the three major hurricanes for which the change would not apply, severely affected parts of House Ways and Means Chair Rep. Kevin Brady’s (R-Tex.) district. Brady is spearheading the charge for the tax plan.
“Please, let’s not play politics with families who are suffering the very real impacts and challenges of recovering from this fire disaster,” Coursey wrote, per the report.
--The latest on Puerto Rico: It’s been seven weeks since Hurricane Maria first hit the island, and some federal programs designed to relieve those affected haven't been deployed in Puerto Rico. The Post's Caitlin Dewey reports that one such program would facilitate emergency food stamps for people who don't usually receive benefits, a benefit offered in Florida and Texas following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey there. Food stamps also were not issued to Puerto Ricans who usually receive them.
“The disparities are the result of a federal funding system designed to reduce the costs of Puerto Rico’s food stamp program. Unlike the mainland, the island receives a capped annual budget, or block grant, which limits the actions it can take in the event of an emergency or economic downturn,” Dewey reports. “Critics have called the system arbitrary and discriminatory, and some fear that it will worsen long-term food insecurity in Puerto Rico despite the recent passage of a $36.5 billion disaster relief package. About 38 percent of households in Puerto Rico rely on the food stamp program, according to the census.”
-- Puerto Rico officials to the Capitol: Island officials told the House Natural Resources Committee during a hearing Tuesday that it would need aid on an “unprecedented scale" to recover from Maria.
"The hard truth is that the island now needs help — emergency and restoration funds and assistance on an unprecedented scale," said Natalie Jaresko, the chair of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico. “Before the hurricanes, the board was determined that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities could achieve balanced budgets, work its way through its debt problems, and develop a sustainable economy without federal aid. That is simply no longer possible.”
-- Lawmakers were frustrated by the absence of a key witness: Ricardo Ramos, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority [PREPA] -- who authorized the controversial $300 million no-bid contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy -- canceled his appearance late Monday. PREPA Chairman Ernesto Sgoi wrote in a letter to the committee that “[Ramos] has communicated to us regretfully, he is unable to participate in the scheduled hearing due to urgent efforts on the ongoing emergency restoration,” CNN reported. The Wall Street Journal noted the panel said it received more than 2,000 pages of documents from PREPA on Monday regarding the cancelled Whitefish contract, which it is investigating.
“I am a little bit chagrined. He was here specifically to talk about Whitefish,” Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said Tuesday, adding that he would request Ramos testify before the panel next week,
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has sharply criticized the Trump administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico, also didn't show before the committee yesterday.
-- LNG for Puerto Rico? During the hearing, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) asked Noel Zamot, the revitalization coordinator for Puerto Rico’s oversight board, about using liquefied natural gas as an energy source on the island.
Zamot told Lamborn that about 96 percent of Puerto Rico's electricity is from burning fuel oils and about 4 percent derives from renewable sources. Lamborn praised Zamborn's plan to grow the electricity base to 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent natural gas resources by 2040 and urged him to “keep pushing in that direction … I welcome the discussion about LNG.”
Lamborn then asked about the Jones Act -- which prevents shipping from foreign carriers within the United States -- calling it a “problem for Puerto Rico.” “Would the Jones Act come into play for liquefied natural gas imports? Because it can be a real restriction on shipping,” Lamborn asked.
Zamot responded that “without going into specifics, we believe that any measures that the Congress takes to ensure that the cost of shipping fuels to Puerto Rico is reduced is a positive step towards rebuilding the economy.”
Lamborn added that “I, for one, would be willing to look at that. I think we should look at that, Congress should look at that, maybe just a very narrow exception to the Jones Act possibly.”
You can watch the full exchange starting around the 46:00 mark below:
-- Got any weekend plans yet? The Interior Department tweeted that it will waive entrance fees for all public lands this weekend in honor of Veterans Day:
- A gas driller that Wilbur Ross once tried to save is exploring bankruptcy: Here's more bad news for the investor-turned-commerce secretary, whose ties to a Russian natural gas producer were revealed in a trove of documents called the "Paradise Papers" over the weekend. From Bloomberg News: "Exco Resources Inc., the natural gas driller that investor Wilbur L. Ross tried to help rescue before he became U.S. commerce secretary, is considering bankruptcy... Before becoming secretary, Ross had heavily invested in the small driller and handpicked turnaround titan C. John Wilder as chairman of the board to help improve its finances. Low oil and natural gas prices continued to weigh on Exco instead, and a deal the company struck to sell assets in South Texas fell apart earlier this year."
Also, Ross appears to have misled reporters about his net worth in order to make it onto the coveted Forbes 400 List.
-- GOP senators tilt against withdrawing wind energy tax credits: Three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have come out against scaling back the wind energy tax credit as proposed in the House tax bill. "We think that issue has been dealt with," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told Bloomberg News. "There may be folks who would like to follow the House approach, but I don’t think that’s what we are going to able to do over here." Senate Republicans are expected to unveil their own tax plan tomorrow.
The math: Given the GOP's narrow 52-member majority in the Senate and the staunch opposition to the tax plan from the chamber's Democrats, the wind energy tax credits could be saved.
- The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a markup on the bipartisan offshore-onshore energy bill.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on the nominations of Kathleen Hartnett White to be a Member of the Council on Environmental Quality and Andrew Wheeler to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Securing America’s Future Energy holds a discussion on “Heavy-Duty Innovation: Energy, Automation & Tech in the Trucking Sector” on Thursday.
- House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled for an oversight hearing on “The Need for Transparent Financial Accountability in Territories’ Disaster Recovery Efforts” for Nov. 14.
Here’s what happened in Virginia’s 2017 election:
Republicans are trying humor to promote their tax plan:
How the Faroe Islands used sheep to get onto Google Street View:
Stephen Colbert said Ed Gillespie would lose in Virginia thanks to Donald Trump Jr.: