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Despite the drumbeat of opposition to President Trump's political nominees, Senate Democrats haven't been able to do much to stop Congress from confirming them.
Fourteen Trump picks to executive branch jobs have withdrawn their names after being selected, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. Each of those nominees removed themselves from consideration before a Senate committee had the chance to vote.
Thus far, no Trump nominee, however, has actually been defeated by the full Senate -- it only takes 50 votes, remember, to reject a nomination because Senate Democrats when they last held the majority changed the rules to require just a simple majority to approve executive branch and federal judicial nominations (minus the Supreme Court).
Yet, that is.
This week, North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, said they would oppose Michael Dourson’s nomination as the top chemical safety official at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The senators raised concerns about Dourson’s track record as a consultant for chemical companies when he was a professor at the University of Cincinnati, where he often produced research finding little or no human health risks for their products. Specifically, Burr pointed to contaminated water documented at a North Carolina military base and an unregulated compound known as Gen X, used to produce Teflon and other products, that was discovered in the Cape Fear River.
“I will not be supporting the nomination of Michael Dourson. With his record and our state’s history of contamination at Camp Lejeune as well as the current Gen X water issues in Wilmington, I am not confident he is the best choice for our country,” Burr said in a statement.
As a consultant, Dourson has assessed a broad range of chemicals, including PFOA, which is used to make nonstick surfaces. His research concluded the chemical is safe at levels significantly higher than those considered acceptable by the EPA. Dourson’s work for a range of corporate clients, as well as various groups representing plastics and pesticide manufacturers, drew scrutiny during his confirmation hearing last month. A Senate committee narrowly voted to send his nomination to the full Senate, which has yet to vote on his confirmation.
Should he be confirmed, Dourson would be in charge of implementing landmark 2016 legislation requiring the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals and set new risk-based safety standards. Dourson would decide risk levels and pick the chemicals on which the agency should focu. Dourson, who worked at the EPA from 1980 through 1994, could also potentially oversee the review of chemicals produced by companies that he has represented.
“Over the last several weeks, Senator Tillis has done his due diligence in reviewing Mr. Dourson’s body of work,” Tillis’s office told reporters in a statement. “Senator Tillis still has serious concerns about his record and cannot support his nomination.”
The opposition of two GOP senators means that Dourson would only need one more antagonist to sink his vote. He would already need the tie-breaking support of Vice President Pence given the 52-member majority GOP Senate majority. If Dourson doesn't withdraw his nomination and another Republican senator refuses to back him, it would represent the first time the Senate has rejected a Trump nominee and would mark a significant political defeat for the administration.
That vote could come from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who says she also has reservations about the longtime toxicologist.
“I have a lot of concerns about Mr. Dourson, and I have not yet made a final decision. But I certainly share the concerns that have been raised by Sen. Burr and Sen. Tillis,” Collins told reporters Thursday. “I think it’s safe to say that I am leaning against him.”
Even among Trump picks to energy and environmental policy posts, Dourson has attracted significant scrutiny. He squeaked through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in a tight 11-to-10 vote that seemed to shake the committee's ranking Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware.
“I have never been this troubled on this committee, or any committee, in 17 years,” Carper said after the committee vote.
West Virginia's Joe Manchin III, a Senate Democrat who often sides with Republicans on environmental issues, has chosen to vote against Dourson, too, citing evaluations Dourson has made of PFOA.
“In West Virginia, we are unfortunately familiar with the dangers that can arise when we neglect to properly comply with and enforce our chemical regulations,” Manchin said in a statement. “After reviewing his qualifications, I am not convinced that Dr. Dourson is the proper fit to oversee the federal agency responsible for overseeing chemical safety.”
Collins is among the cohort of moderate Republicans who have crossed the aisle on environmental issues since Trump took office. She opposed the nominations of both EPA chief Scott Pruitt and one of his assistant administrators, Bill Wehrum.
The two North Carolina senators are not known for bucking GOP leadership. But heightened concern about chemical contamination among Tar Heel residents was enough for them to pull their support.
In Jacksonville, N.C., officers at Camp Lejeune, the country's largest Marine base, have been sickened by tainted water that has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, leukemia and other cancers. Among the toxic chemicals contaminating drinking water there is trichloroethylene, or TCE. Dourson has argued for a safety standard for the chemical less stringent than what the EPA recommends.
After Burr and Tillis pulled their support, the EPA on Friday defended Dourson's career as a toxicologist. “Dr. Michael Dourson is a highly qualified scientist to lead EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution," agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox said. "He worked at EPA for 15 years, founded a program that characterized the health hazards of chemicals, performed pro-bono work that saved a family near Cincinnati and his expertise on TCE contamination resulted in settlements that helped 130 families outside of San Francisco."
This month, the Senate approved Wehrum to be the EPA's assistant administrator of air and radiation, tasked with crafting a replacement for the Obama administration's rule on curbing carbon dioxide from the nation's power plants. The Senate was narrow 49-to-47 split, with Manchin voting against Wehrum, as well.
Dourson may not be the only environmental nominee with a tough road ahead.
Trump’s pick to head the Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White, also may face a challenge getting confirmed by the Senate. Although no GOP senators have declared their oppostion, according to administration officials, some have privately expressed concerns in the wake of her recent appearance before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
During that hearing, Hartnett White said although human activity is probably warming the planet, the extent to which people contribute is “very uncertain.” In contrast, climate scientists agree that burning fossil fuels, tearing down forests and other human activity is probably the chief culprit behind climate change.
As any good high-school physics student can tell you, it does.
Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin contributed reporting.
My colleague James Hohmann interviewed EPA administrator Pruitt for The Daily 202 today on a wide range of topics, from his ties to industry, to his proud rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations to the $25,000 phone booth built in his office. Read the whole thing here.
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-- Spill on the eve of a crucial decision: The Keystone pipeline running from Canada across the Great Plains has been partially shut down after a leak Thursday morning caused 210,000 gallons of oil to spill. The line has been stopped from Hardisty, Alberta to Cushing, Oklahoma, and to Wood River/Patoka, Illinois, per the Associated Press.
The fallout: For TransCanada, the pipeline's owner, the magnitude of an oil spill like this is not its biggest problem. It's the timing. The spill comes four days before the Nebraska Public Service Commission is scheduled to determine whether to issue a permit for its sister pipeline, the Keystone XL. The Post's Steven Mufson and Chris Mooney report the spill affecting the first Keystone pipeline “is the latest in a series of incidents that critics of the new pipeline say shows that TransCanada should not receive another permit.”
TransCanada said the Thursday leak was “completely isolated” within 15 minutes and it had obtained permission from the landowner to begin cleanup. Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist manager at the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, also told The Post the spill had not impacted a surface water body:
Here’s a statement from TransCanada, shared via CBS News:
-- More administration travel woes: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has failed to keep complete records of his travel since taking office, and in some cases kept no records at all, The Post Lisa Rein and Drew Harwell report. The agency’s internal watchdog said the management of Zinke’s travel was “deficient” and “without proper management oversight,” and alerted his office that Deputy Inspector Mary Kendall’s probe into his travel was being hindered due to “absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips.”
Kendall’s memo also charges that Interior lawyers and ethics officials have not yet been able to prove to investigators they can “distinguish between personal, political and office travel” nor have they provided documentation of costs to justify noncommercial travel.
The Interior watchdog is also looking into the extent Zinke’s wife, Lola, traveled with him on official trips. Rein and Harwell note David Bernhardt, the department’s deputy secretary, told the agency he would provide any outstanding documentation, but pushed blame onto the previous administration for record management issues.
“When I arrived at the Department in August 2017, it was clear to me that the Secretary and I inherited an organizational and operational mess from the previous administration,” Bernhardt wrote. “From my perspective . . . it appears that the exact same [travel] procedures and processes utilized by the previous Administration remain in place and continue to be dysfunctional.”
-- 377 days later...: Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced EPA chief Scott Pruitt will testify before the panel on Jan. 31, more than a year after he first appeared before the committee on Jan. 19, 2017.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the committee, has been criticizing Pruitt over his absence in the Senate:
It's not normal that @EPAScottPruitt hasn't appeared before the Senate committee charged w/ oversight of the agency. It's been 299 days since we've seen him and I have questions. pic.twitter.com/9JuW8Zuwo5— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) November 14, 2017
-- “A necessary element of human psyche:” Before a Senate panel took a step further in an effort to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, British primatologist Jane Goodall wrote a letter to every senator calling on them to oppose drilling in the region.
“If we violate the Arctic Refuge by extracting the oil beneath the land, this will have devastating impact for the Gwich‘in people for they depend on the caribou herds to sustain their traditional way of life,” Goodall wrote, reported Reuters. She added the region’s “very wildness speaks to our deeply rooted spiritual connection to nature, a necessary element of human psyche.”
The panel voted 13-10 on Wednesday mostly on party lines to advance the measure that will be added to the tax package Republicans want to clear before the close of the year, as The Energy 202 noted
-- And from the National Audubon Society's website, a roundup of scientists who oppose drilling in the refuge, One of the scientists, wildlife biologist John Schoen, retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Audubon Alaska, called the refuge "probably one of the most significant wilderness areas left in the United States, if not North America."
The latest on disaster relief: The White House plans to ask lawmakers to approve another $44 billion in disaster relief to aid storm victims in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas and Florida, Politico reported, amounting to a third aid package in three months.
Congress has already approved $52 billion. The new request falls short of the amount requested recently by local officials. Texas asked for $61 billion as the state recovers from Hurricane Harvey and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló this week told lawmakers the island would need more than $94 billion to fund its recovery.
The House and Senate are expected to consider the new aid request next month.
-- What’s hampering recovery in Puerto Rico? Special legislation Congress passed last year to help the U.S. territory as it faced a financial crisis may now be threatening its recovery efforts. From the New York Times: "The special legislation, known as Promesa, placed Puerto Rico under the oversight of a federal board and subjected its debt to a court-supervised restructuring. The law patched together provisions reflecting the island’s status as a self-governing United States territory and parts of Chapter 9, the federal bankruptcy code covering local governments… The implications of that move are becoming clearer as relief efforts in Puerto Rico sputter along compared with the smoother federal responses this year to hurricanes in Florida and Texas."
-- Many of the Houston residents who lived inside of reservoirs built to protect homes in the city from flooding were never made aware of their special location. Now, they’re bringing lawsuits against the federal government. And Bloomberg notes many of the residents are “white, wealthy, Republican-voting energy executives.”
Almost 100 lawyers are present, combed and buzzing in anticipation of what promises to be some of the most complex and expensive litigation ever brought against the federal government. Observers speculate that thousands of plaintiffs could eventually join in, and that the total damages claimed could reach $10 billion or more, especially if the big energy and oil companies—whose presence in one section of West Houston gave it the nickname the Energy Corridor—sue over their flooded headquarters. Eighty suits, 11 of which are seeking class-action status, have been filed by homeowners against the federal government, though many of the Energy Corridor’s approximately 9,500 residents are still weighing their options, speed-dating lawyers by phone and at community meetings.
-- A semiautonomous semi: Tesla unveiled a new semiautonomous semi truck that will be available by 2019, the electric automaker said. Vox's Umair Irfan has more details: "The semi is a fully electric Class 8 truck, a category of freight vehicles that weigh more than 33,000 pounds, including tractor-trailer rigs that form the backbone of commercial road freight. This one, Musk said, can haul 80,000 pounds. Tesla’s offering has a range of 500 miles at maximum weight at highways speeds, much higher than early spec reports of a range of 300 miles. Musk said the truck has a coefficient of drag of just 0.36, making it more aerodynamic than the Bugatti Chiron, a $2.7 million supercar with a drag coefficient of 0.38."
Bigger picture: Given that autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles fare better on open highways than on congested urban streets, freight trucking is one of the most promising uses of driverless technology.
Promising, that is, for firms like Tesla and others developing driverless technology. Not so much for the truck drivers those computer systems may one day replace.
-- Bon voyage to Bonn: A coalition of 19 countries and six states and provinces made a major announcement at the climate conference in Bonn, Germany on Thursday: the formation of an international alliance aiming to phase out coal-fired power generation by 2030. Key nations in the alliance, such as Denmark, France, Finland, Italy, Austria, Mexico and the Netherlands, were already largely limiting their use of coal power. In fact, the members of the “Powering Past Coal Alliance” account for less than 3 percent of global coal use, per the New York Times.
Notably missing, as Reuters and the Times points out, are some of the world’s biggest coal-consuming countries, including China, India, Germany and, of course, the United States. But in her closing remarks, the State Department's Judith Garber said "we remain open to the possibility of rejoining (the Paris climate deal) at a later date under terms more favorable to the American people," per the AP. In another headline, The Times said she struck "a more conciliatory tone." Reminder: the United States is still part of the agreement, but is eligible to pull out in 2020.
If all this sounds overly ambitious, scientists seem to agree. Per Eric Roston of Bloomberg News: "Climate negotiators inserted a dramatic charge in the 2015 Paris accord, asking world leaders to strive to keep global temperatures at just 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Now new studies have begun to sketch out what the tighter target -- compared to the longtime bench mark goal of 2 degrees (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) -- actually means. Their overall message to climate envoys meeting in Bonn, Germany this week: Better get cracking. 'We would need an incredibly dramatic reduction in emissions in the very near future,' said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist with Berkeley Earth. He called the 1.5 degree target 'a little ridiculous and implausible.'"
And here are some of the best long reads of the week for your weekend:
- From The Nation: A little known official, James Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department has been working behind the scenes to dismantle the department. In a “Thursday-night massacre” described in the story, Cason sent memos to more than two dozen of the department’s highest-ranking staffers to let them know they’d been reassigned and had 15 days to accept new roles or retire, a move which is now being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General. “In addition to orchestrating the personnel reassignments and chairing the regulatory-reform task force that has rewritten or eliminated many Obama-era policies, Cason has been tasked with reviewing every grant or cooperative agreement of $100,000 or more, as well as any pending decisions with “nationwide, regional, or statewide impact,’” the Nation reported.
- From Politico Magazine: For Jerry Brown, the expiration of his term as governor of California has brought him a new mission, or as David Siders writes for Politico Magazine, a “more urgent, final act:” “Trump’s election—and the specter of Brown’s own retirement—have lately set the governor on a tear. In a rush of climate diplomacy this year, Brown traveled to China to meet with President Xi Jinping, then to Russia to participate in an international economic forum. This past week saw him address lawmakers in Brussels and Stuttgart, Germany, and he was preparing for roundtable meetings with scientists in Oslo before arriving in Bonn for a climate conference, where Brown will serve as special adviser for states and regions. And he is preparing for California to host an international climate summit of its own next year in San Francisco.”
- From The New Yorker: The magazine's Elizabeth Kolbert reminds readers that this year, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere reached a 410 parts per million, a record that will likely be beat next year, and the year after and so on. One potential solution, and the possibility for a “trillion-dollar enterprise,” Kolbert details, is carbon-dioxide removal, which offers a way not just to slow down emissions in the atmosphere but to reverse them. And there are half a dozen companies are trying to prove that the mechanism can be a reality.
- Former vice president Al Gore will host a 24-hour live broadcast about climate activism through The Climate Reality Project on Dec. 4-5.
Here’s what Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has said about sexual violence:
Late-night comedians Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and others had a lot to say about the allegations against Franken:
Actress Meryl Streep spoke out about her own experiences with violence at an annual award show by the Committee to Protect Journalists:
Tian Tian, the adult male panda at the National Zoo was put under anesthesia for a medical checkup: