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The Energy 202: Here are some environmental and energy items that survived the tax conference

with Paulina Firozi


On Wednesday, members of the House and Senate emerged from conference committee with a compromise tax plan they are confident they can get through both chambers — and turn into President Trump's first major legislative accomplishment.

“We are so close right now,” President Trump said at the White House. “So close.”

GOP leaders have not revealed all the details of the tax code rewrite, The Post's Damian Paletta and Erica Werner report. But the top line is this: The bill "would lower the corporate tax rate to 21 percent beginning in 2018" and "would also lower the top tax rate for families and individuals from 39.6 percent to at least 37 percent, a change that would deliver a major tax cut for upper-income households."

The tax plan, though, is in many ways much more than a tax plan. It has wide implications for energy policy in the United States.

Here's what we know so far about what survived conference committee:

Arctic refuge drilling stays: Given the presence of an Alaskan senator, Lisa Murkowski, on the conference committee, the provision of the tax bill that would allow drilling in a 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) unsurprisingly emerged unscathed from negotiations.

"Alaskans have fought for a long time to authorize a program for responsible energy development in the non-wilderness 1002 Area,” Murkowski, who authored the energy title in the tax bill, said in a statement. “It will provide economic growth and prosperity for our state and the nation.” She noted a majority of Alaskans support drilling in the "1002 area," a technical name for the coastal plain.

The Senate version of the bill included the drilling provision, while the House version did not. However, Alaska's lone representative in the House, Don Young, was on the conference committee in addition to Murkowski, and House GOP leaders signaled early on they wanted ANWR drilling, too.

"The rest of us are committed to going that way with or without Rep. Young there," Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chair of the House Natural Resources Committtee, said last week.

Meanwhile, after decades of successfully stopping Congress from approving refuge drilling, environmental groups continued to condemn the proposal.

"Good decisions are made through full and fair debate, not political horse-trading," Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League said. "No tax scheme is worth betraying our commitment to protect this iconic landscape for future generations, let alone one the piles massive debt on our children and grandchildren."

Tax breaks for wind energy and electric vehicles saved, too: According to Ari Natter of Bloomberg News, tax credits for wind energy and electric vehicles have been spared in the tax compromise.

In at least the case of wind energy, a cohort of GOP senators from windy states — including John Thune of South Dakota, who was on the conference committee — made it clear before negotiations they were unwilling to waver on the issue.

But the preservation of a scheduled phase down of the wind tax credit, as agreed to in a 2015 end-of-year spending bill, may be moot if negotiators cannot also fix a related issue with the base erosion anti-abuse tax, or BEAT.

Designed to discourage large multinational companies from keeping money offshore, the BEAT provision inadvertently swept up wind and solar energy tax credits, eroding their value to renewable investors like Goldman Sachs and Google.

The wind and solar lobby is seeking an exemption from BEAT for their tax breaks, but a deal has not been struck yet. "We’re working on it," Thune told Bloomberg News.

As was one for the oil and gas sector: One Senate tax provision for so-called master limited partnerships (MLPs), a corporate entity often used by pipeline companies, was also saved in negotiations, Bloomberg News reports.

Inserted at the last minute by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), an MLP is a "pass-through" entity that allows profits from pipelines and some other types of oil and gas projects to be taxed only once. Normally, money made by a publicly traded company is taxed twice, with corporations and their shareholders paying their own separate tax bills.


-- Controversial EPA nominee out: On Wednesday, Michael Dourson, who was nominated by Trump to be the Environmental Protection Agency’s top chemical safety official, withdrew his name from consideration after it became clear the Senate was not going to approve him, The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report.

Ultimately, it was the North Carolina delegation that took down the one-time University of Cincinnati professor and longtime toxicologist. Dennis and Eilperin write: "Both of North Carolina’s GOP senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, indicated that they could not support his nomination. Burr said he was most alarmed about Dourson’s work on a case involving contaminated water 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. Tillis voiced concerns about Dourson’s 'body of work.' "

-- Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt returned Wednesday from a trip to Morocco: The EPA chief was there to talk to officials about their interest in importing natural gas as well as other areas of “continued cooperation” between the two countries, according to a report from Juliet. Pruitt took along seven aides and an undisclosed number of staff from his protective detail. The EPA disclosed the trip late Tuesday after it was initially reported by Axios. 

What makes the trip curious: "The purpose of the trip sparked questions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and some industry experts, who noted that EPA plays no formal role in overseeing natural gas exports," Eilperin writes. "Such activities are overseen primarily by the Energy Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."

Eric Lipton at The New York Times has a good Twitter thread on the Morocco trip. Here's the kicker: 

-- Trimming free park access: The National Park Service will slash the number of days visitors can enter the park for free just as the Interior Department is planning to raise entrance fees.

The Park Service will have four free days next year. That is just 25 percent of the 16 free days that were offered in 2016 and down from the 10 days in 2017. The four times visitors can enter parks in 2018 for free are Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 15, the first day of National Park Week on April 21, National Public Lands Day on Sept. 22 and Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

-- What does Doug Jones's Alabama win mean for the environment? Alabamians elected Democrat Doug Jones in Tuesday night’s special election, a candidate who “campaigned partially on transitioning away from coal, investing in renewables, and addressing environmental issues that affect the state’s minority populations most,” reports the New Republic’s Emily Atkin. Jones has publicly disagreed with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and has said he would “support reasonable restrictions” on carbon emissions. Atkin calls his view “wishy-washy” for a Democrat, but notes that his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, has denied climate science.

While never making energy and environmental issues a top campaign priority, Moore once wrote: “Not only do scientists disagree on 'global warming,' but there is little hard evidence that carbon emissions cause changes to the global climate."

-- The storm brewing around Trump's NOAA nominee: The Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr. takes a deep look at the controversy around Barry Myers, President Trump’s nominee to head the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, who has drawn ire from former administrators of the agency. ‘O’Harrow writes it’s the first time in the agency’s history that former agency heads have expressed such opposition.

  • Kathryn Sullivan, a retired NASA astronaut and former chief NOAA scientist who served as the agency head under former President Barack Obama said “the many and clear conflicts of interest give me grave concerns about whether this nominee will truly serve the public’s interests… It strains credulity.”
  • D. James Baker, NOAA administrator for eight years under former President Bill Clinton warned that Myers wouldn't be able to eliminate financial conflicts of interest, including holdings in AccuWeather worth up to $50 million, especially because the family-owned firm would still benefit from decisions he made as NOAA head. “You’ve got the potential of decisions being made on the basis of money rather than what’s best for the country,” Baker said.
  • Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist who served as NOAA administrator for Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, criticized Myers for “his egregious conflicts of interest,” “his lack of scientific training,” and his “aggressive and sustained actions to undermine” the National Weather Service.
  • Meanwhile, despite those concern, the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday advanced Myers's nomination to the full Senate in a 14-13 party-line vote.

-- The latest on hurricane relief: House Republican leaders may be considering delaying approval for an additional round of disaster aid, warning that a relief package may not be ready to include in a year-end spending bill, Politico reports. Lawmakers have until Dec. 22, when government funding expires.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said he was “worried that it may end up moving us into January. So I’m very concerned.” But Politico’s Sarah Ferris reports that several lawmakers from storm-stricken states say they refuse to allow the funding to be punted to early next year. A bipartisan group of more than 60 lawmakers from Texas and Florida said earlier this month they would block a year-end spending bill if it doesn't include relief funding.

The report adds that any funding package will prioritize aid for Texas and Florida, although some aides told Politico there is increased pressure to include funding for Puerto Rico.  

-- Death recount: Two Democratic lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office to review the official count of hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The official count, more than 12 weeks after the storm first hit the island, is 64 deaths. But reports from various publications have found that the death toll may be closer to 1,000, according to Vox.

Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote a letter to the GAO, citing the multiple media reports, and noting that “as Congress considers additional aid for hurricane-impacted areas, including Puerto Rico, the official death count will likely shape the scope and direction of federal assistance.” 


-- How does fracking affect newborn health? Babies born near natural gas drilling sites are 25 percent likely to have a low birth weight than babies born farther away, according to a new study.

Inside Climate News reports that the study of a million births in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region found that babies born within 3 kilometers, or nearly 2 miles, of fracking sites were less healthy, based on measurements including low birth weight, prematurity, congenital defects and other abnormalities, per the report. 

The Post's Darryl Fears reported the five-year study found lower birth weights, although not as low, in infants with mothers who lived between half a mile and two miles from a fracking site. 

Air pollution could be partly to blame, according to Inside Climate News, though it’s not clear whether it would be pollution caused by the fracking process or from the machinery required by it. 

--Coal plant customers, overcharged: Coal plants in the Southwest Power Pool are significantly overcharging customers, according to a report from the conservation group Sierra Club. Utility Dive reports on a study finding that in 2015 and 2016, running 14 of the more expensive plants cost customers $300 million in higher electric costs.

"Utilities are able to get away with this because utilities can take advantage of the complex nature of rate design, rate cases, and market rules," the report found. "This complexity and lack of transparency creates a system where customers buffer and fill in the gap of a [utility's] market losses."

Officials from Southwest Power Pool disputed the report’s findings, but said 'self-committing' — whereby generators operate units regardless of whether the electric revenues from the SPP market cover the marginal costs — is a potential issue in the marketplace.”

-- A critical boost for coal: Coal exports in the first three quarters of this year exceeded all sales from 2016, the New York Times reports, bringing much-needed relief to the struggling mining industry. Experts predict  an overall exports increase of 46 percent for 2017.

“Those are crucial dollars for an industry trying to stabilize itself after nearly a decade of declining prices, expanding competition from natural gas and wind and solar energy, and bankruptcies,” the Times’s Clifford Krauss writes. “Domestic coal-fired power plants continue to close despite promises of regulatory relief by the Trump administration, making the exports all the more critical.”

-- “Join or die:” Utility Dive takes a deep dive into how the growing number of cities pursuing 100 percent renewables is affecting utilities in those areas. The bottom line: Utilities must decide whether to cooperate with cities' plans and create renewable energy programs -- or risk losing their customers. 

As the Thomas Fire burned through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties Tuesday night, many residents wore masks as air quality continued to worsen. (Video: Reuters)

-- California is still burning: Firefighters have made progress on the Thomas fire in Southern California, what is now one of the biggest blazes in the state’s history. But The Post’s Mark Berman reports that officials warn there is still a risk of “extreme fire behavior” through the end of the week.

The blaze, which had grown to more than 370 square miles, Berman writes, was still just 25 percent contained. The Thomas fire has been blamed for the only death that has been confirmed as a result of the various fires.

Elsewhere. the Lilac Fire in San Diego County has been 95 percent contained, Berman reports. The Rye Fire in Los Angeles County Is 100 percent contained. The Creek Fire was 98 percent contained by Wednesday morning. And the Skirball fire in Bel-Air was 85 percent contained.

The largest California wildfire advanced on coastal towns near Santa Barbara on Dec. 10, stoked by the gusty winds and dry conditions. (Video: Reuters)

Climate Central and Pacific Standard wrote this week about how the smoke from the fires can affect the state’s most vulnerable. “Climate change-focused research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters a year ago concluded smoke could send 30 more people to hospitals across the West each year during the late 2040s than was the case 40 years earlier as smoke waves become more frequent and severe, mostly in the late summer and early fall,” according to the report. 

-- Before you throw out that old smartphone... A new study backed by the United Nations found that nearly 45 million metric tons of electronic waste, including televisions, refrigerators, cellphones and chargers, were discarded last year. And just a fifth of those were recycled, according to the Associated Press. The United States contributed 6.3 million metric tons, per the study. All the materials from the discarded items, if they had been recycled and recovered, would have been worth $55 billion, the study found.  

So where can you recycle your electronics? The EPA has a list of some manufacturers and retailers that offer options here



  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing on Grand Staircase-Escalante Bill.
  • National Journal holds a webinar on Trump and NAFTA.

Coming Up

  • The Dialogue holds an event on the Trump administration, Latin America and Energy on Friday. 

Watch a helicopter crew rescue an injured firefighter from blazing California terrain:

Ventura County Aviation Unit staged a rescue near Carpinteria, Calif., on Dec.12, as they hoisted a firefighter injured battling the Thomas Fire to safety. (Video: Ventura County Aviation Unit)

President Trump has catapulted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand into the spotlight:

President Trump brought national attention to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) after tweeting about her Dec. 12. Here's what else you need to know about Gillibr (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Watch Former Vice President Joe Biden's heartfelt moment with Meghan McCain about his son's battle with cancer and his friendship with her father, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):

Samantha Bee reacts to the results of the Alabama Senate special election: