with Paulina Firozi

THE LIGHTBULB

One of the fiercest debates raging around the GOP-led tax overhaul is whether to open a coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploratory drilling.

With the passage of the Senate’s version of the tax plan out of committee Tuesday, the decades-long effort to open the Arctic refuge to industry inches closer to completion.

Authority to allow oil and gas development in that undeveloped piece of Alaskan wilderness lies with Congress. But elsewhere in Alaska’s North Slope, where the executive branch is less hamstrung, the Trump administration is marching forward unabated with energy development.

The latest: On Tuesday, the Interior Department approved new drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved an application submitted by the Italian oil giant Eni to do exploratory drilling from a man-made island off Oliktok Point in the Beaufort Sea, about 100 miles west of the wildlife refuge along the North Slope coast.

The safety office said Eni could begin drilling as early as December. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

The economic viability of drilling for oil in Arctic Ocean, where the advance and retreat of sea ice annually could make any cleanup from a spill treacherous, was called into question in 2016 when Eni, along with Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Iona Energy, relinquished all but one of their offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, which is west of the Beaufort.

“Drilling for oil in the Arctic is an accident waiting to happen,” Kristen Monsell, oceans program litigation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday. "The Trump administration is risking a major oil spill by letting this foreign corporation drill in the unforgiving waters off Alaska."

But the area around Oliktok Point is already home to Eni production facilities, including 18 producing wells, 13 injector wells and one disposal well. Though the artificial island on which the exploratory drilling will commence lies in state waters, horizontal drilling will allow Eni to search for petroleum under federally controlled seas.

In 2016, as he left office, President Barack Obama used a rarely invoked law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to ban new offshore leasing in large swaths of the Atlantic and Arctic, including in much of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

But the Trump administration has worked to reverse that and other rules reining in the energy sector as it drives to make the United States a net energy exporter.

“Responsible resource development in the Arctic is a critical component to achieving American energy dominance,” Scott Angelle, BSEE director and a Trump appointee, said in a statement. “BSEE is committed to working with our Alaskan Native and Industry partners by taking a thoughtful and balanced approach to oil and gas exploration, development and production in the Arctic”

In April, Trump issued an executive order asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the five-year offshore leasing plan announced by the Obama administration at the end of the president's term. The order also revoked the Arctic and Atlantic offshore drilling ban, although environmental groups, which pressured Obama to issue the ban in the first place, have filed a lawsuit saying that Trump does not have the authority to rescind his predecessor’s decision.

The executive order “hasn’t had any effect on the ground” yet, said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society, one of the groups suing. 

Eni will drill in a section of the Beaufort not encompassed by the Obama-era ban. The project is one of two offshore proposals, along with another from a subsidiary of Houston-based Hilcorp, that have been seeking approval.

In July, another office in the Interior Department, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, gave the green light to Eni. Offshore drilling projects need approval from both offices to proceed.

POWER PLAYS

--Three minutes at a time in coal country: The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis has a dispatch from Charleston, W.Va., where the Environmental Protection Agency hosted the first of a two-day hearing to hear about 300 people who signed up to speak about the agency’s proposal to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. In his three allotted minutes, coal magnate Robert Murray called the Clean Power Plan a “linchpin” of the “war on coal,” Dennis writes, and charged that it would lead to more job loss.

But the most effective advocates — both pro- and anti-CPP — of the day were coal miners. Coal company owners and labor, traditionally adversaries, appeared as a unified front at the event, at least as indicated by the EPA's official Twitter account:

Did Murray ask the coal miners to come? “No, I did not. They came on their own,” the CEO said, according to The New Republic's Emily Atkin. However, one Murray worker, Ryan Wilson, told the magazine: “He did ask... He asked for volunteers.”

Meanwhile, according to Brady, 72-year-old Stanley Sturgill, who mined coal for four decades in Kentucky, spoke of “his own respiratory problems and how emissions from coal-fired power plants and other pollutants had wreaked havoc on the health of friends, family and neighbors.”

In a speech that received wide pickup in other publications, too, Sturgill urged EPA officials to “strengthen, not repeal, the Clean Power Plan” and to put people’s health above the fossil fuel industry.

The two-day event, which continues today, is the only public hearing the Trump administration has planned to seek input on the potential repeal of the CPP.

-- Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal published this dispatch on Scott Pruitt from Florida, not West Virginia, as the EPA chief toured Walt Disney World earlier this week to "highlight the theme park’s commitment to sustainability," according to the paper's Eli Stokols.

Toward the end of the article, Pruitt gave a curious answer to a question about the climate change and hurricanes. Stokols writes: 

Mr. Pruitt wouldn’t say if he accepts that an increase in extreme weather events over the past several decades is, as the National Climate Assessment found, “related to human activities.” “Those studies don’t talk about cause and effect,” he said. “They talk about the theory that the storms are enhanced in some way, so it’s not a cause and effect analysis; it’s more of an enhancement issue. That’s a discussion that’s ongoing and we encourage debate across the full spectrum.”

This year's National Climate Assessment, if indeed that is what Pruitt was referring to, does in fact discuss the cause-and-effect relationship between the warming planet and intensifying hurricanes. According to the chapter on extreme storms:

Human activities have contributed substantially to observed ocean–atmosphere variability in the Atlantic Ocean (medium confidence), and these changes have contributed to the observed upward trend in North Atlantic hurricane activity since the 1970s (medium confidence). Is there something that I (or WSJ) am missing? Let me know if you want to comment or clarify because I would like to highlight the interview in my newsletter.

The EPA did not reply to a request for clarification on the administrator's comments here. Overall, the assessment, which the government is required to produce every four years, found "no convincing alternative explanation" for climate change other than human activity.

-- Monuments update: President Trump intends to travel to Utah on Monday to announce his plans to decrease the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports.

Trump’s visit follows Zinke’s recommendation to the president to shrink the size of both monuments. Individuals informed about the president's plans said he will reduce the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears monument by more than 1 million acres. Trump plans to travel to Salt Lake City rather than visit the monuments themselves, as Zinke has.

-- Waiting game at FERC: Earlier this month, the Senate approved the last two nominees to the five commissioner slots on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But the two, Republican Kevin McIntyre and Democrat Richard Glick, have not been sworn-in just yet. FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee is insisting he hasn't been delaying that moment.

“I do want to be clear with everybody: You guys are reading way too much into this. There is no conspiracy here. There is no intentional delay or dragging things out to some nefarious end,” Chatterjee told reporters on Tuesday, according to The Hill's Timothy Cama.

“It’s simply a matter of timing, prioritization, getting documents signed. Then, once the documents are signed … people have to unwind their own professional obligations in their current jobs before they can transition over. Last week was Thanksgiving. I’m certain that both of the confirmed nominees wanted to spend time with their families.”

Chatterjee is serving as chairman until McIntyre joins. The biggest decision currently facing the commission is how to act on the Energy Department's request to adopt new regulations ensuring coal and nuclear plants are adequately compensated for the reliability they bring to the grid. Two of FERC's current commissioners, Cheryl LaFleur and Robert Powelson, have publicly expressed skepticism over Energy Secretary Rick Perry's proposal.

-- More: Catherine Traywick and Naureen S. Malik at Bloomberg News have a worthwhile explanation of how Perry's power grid resiliency proposal would "amount to a multimillion-dollar, possibly even multibillion-dollar, tax on consumers to bail out some big Trump supporters."

-- More contract woes for Puerto Rico: A Florida company tapped to provide emergency supplies to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria was awarded $30 million in contracts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but never provided any services. The Associated Press reports that FEMA eventually canceled its contracts with Bronze Star LLC after four weeks without paying the company.

It’s unclear, according to the report, how well FEMA vetted the company, which had never won a government contract or delivered tarps or plastic sheeting. Bronze Star acquired contracts from FEMA to provide 500,000 tarps and 60,000 plastic-sheeting rolls to the island.

FEMA canceled the contracts and notified the brothers who own the company that it would seek $9.3 million in damages unless they signed a waiver releasing the United States from any liability, according to the report, which the brothers signed.

“We were trying to help; it wasn’t about making money or anything like that,” Kayon Jones told the AP.

FEMA awarded a contract to another company, OSC Solutions Inc., which the AP notes has about two decades of federal contracting experience, after canceling its deal with Bronze Star. More than 93,000 tarps have now been sent to the island.          

More on Puerto Rico:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled a $146 billion recovery plan for the island, which states that renewable energy sources would account for 70 percent of energy needs within the decade, The Post’s Jeff Stein writes.The bill would also urge lawmakers to consider retiring the territory’s debt and provide billions in funding for transportation, health care and education.
  • Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who asked for $94 billion from lawmakers, stopped short of endorsing Sanders's plan, which might not get a vote anyways. “We are committed to rebuilding Puerto Rico smarter and stronger than ever before, but we need all the assistance we can get from the federal government,” Rosselló said. “We welcome all discussions and proposals being discussed in the United States Senate, including [Sanders’s] proposed bill."
OIL CHECK

-- "Less of an oil company:" Over at The New York Times, Clifford Krauss reports on how Royal Dutch Shell is becoming "less of an oil company" because of its carbon-cutting commitment. 

"Bowing to pressure from shareholders and the Paris international climate accord, Royal Dutch Shell pledged on Tuesday to increase its investment in renewable fuels and to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2050. Shell and other big oil companies have moved only sporadically over the last decade toward greater production of wind and solar energy. Now there are signs of a commitment to take climate change more seriously. In comments to investors, Ben van Beurden, Shell’s chief executive, said that from 2018 to 2020, the company’s new-energies division would spend up to $2 billion a year on renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydrogen power and on electric-car charging stations."

-- But here's a note of caution, from HuffPost's Alexander C. Kaufman. A study published this month in the journal Academy of Management Journal tracking five major Australian firms "found that several big companies that had announced ambitious sustainability goals retreated when profits decreased or top executives changed."

ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE

--One of every six cars will be electric by 2025, according to a new UBS global autos survey, Bloomberg News reports. By then, according to analysts, electric vehicle sales would hit 16.5 million and those sales will make up 16 percent of all car sales. “And if things go the way they have in 2017,” Bloomberg notes, “those cars are more likely to be emblazoned with a Tesla Inc. logo than BMW AG’s.”

THERMOMETER

-- Air pollution may be making you worse at your job: Outdoor air pollution can have a negative impact on your job performance even if you work indoors, says The Post’s Christopher Ingraham in reporting on a new study from researchers at Germany’s Leibniz University and the Columbia Business School.

The study looked at data on stock trades made by more than 100,000 private investors in Germany from 2003 to 2015 as well as information about air quality, weather and traffic. While controlling for several factors that would affect trading, including the day of the week and preceding market returns, among other factors, the study looked at any fluctuation in trading behavior based on changes in a measure known as PM10, or particles small enough to be inhaled deep into lungs, Ingraham explains.

Researchers found that even a 12-microgram per cubic meter increase in pollutants could reduce investors' propensity to trade by nearly 10 percent. In Germany, where the study data was gathered, levels of pollutants can normally fluctuate between 0 and 40 micrograms.

-- EPA's curb on chemical appears to be working: Researchers have found that phasing out one of the chemicals used in nonstick coating has resulted in fewer babies being born underweight, according to The Post’s Brady Dennis and Eilperin.

Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is used in stain-resistant carpets, nonstick pans, pizza boxes and outdoor apparel, and has been linked to several health problems, including cancer. In 2006, the EPA reached an agreement with U.S. manufacturers to begin to limit and eventually halt production of PFOA by 2015.

The new findings from researchers at New York University are based on blood sample analysis of new mothers collected between 2003 and 2014, per the report. The levels of PFOA in women ages 18 to 49 rose from 2003 to 2008 but began dropping by 2009. And blood levels of PFOA declined from a median 2.8 nanograms per milliliter to 1.6 nanograms per milliliter by 2014.

The researchers used computer modeling to estimate the number of low-weight births that resulted from PFOA exposure and then estimated the voluntary phaseout of PFOA and similar chemicals has prevented between 10,000 and 17,000 low-weight births in the United States annually in recent years.

--What’s the likelihood of a December tropical storm? Conditions in the Atlantic are warm enough to support another storm even after the official close of the hurricane season on Thursday, according to Bloomberg. In 166 years, just 17 tropical storms and six hurricanes have formed in the Atlantic after the close of the season. And even if one occurs, “a December storm would pose little threat to the U.S.,” per the report. 

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The EPA will hold its second day of public hearings on the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan in Charleston, W.Va.

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a business meeting on the nominations of Kathleen Hartnett White to be a member of the Council on Environmental Quality and Andrew Wheeler to be the deputy administrator of the EPA. 
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “Examining the Role of Financial Trading in the Electricity Markets” on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on “Modernizing NEPA for the 21st Century.”
  • The New York Times hosts a climate summit in San Francisco on today and Thursday.

Coming Up

  • The Natural Gas Roundtable hosts FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee at its luncheon on Thursday.
  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on the Department of Energy’s grid resilience proposal on Thursday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on “Zero-emission Fuel in the Maritime Sector” on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on a bill to streamline water projects on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on Thursday.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies holds a hearing on HUD and community block grants for disaster recovery on Friday.
  • EPA head Scott Pruitt is set to hold a town hall in Nevada, Iowa on Friday.
  • The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on "Conservation programs, the waters of the United States, and the Renewable Fuel Standard" on Dec. 6.
EXTRA MILEAGE

Hawaii's higher elevations hit with a snowstorm:

President Trump said he “would absolutely blame the Democrats” if there was a government shutdown:

Trevor Noah on President Trump calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) "Pocahontas:"

Watch Full Frontal with Samantha Bee's own undercover sting operation: