Note to readers: Dino is on vacation this week. Chris Mooney, a Washington Post energy and environment writer, wrote today's Lightbulb. Follow him here.
It may not have gotten a lot of attention yet outside the wonky world of energy efficiency.
But within that world, concerns are mounting that one of the key parts of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda may involve the Energy Department’s appliance standards program. The program — low-profile, but quite consequential both to consumers and to the environment — sets rules governing the energy consumption levels of many familiar products and appliances. Think refrigerators and dishwashers, as well as many other pieces of consumer and industrial equipment.
The bottom line is rules setting standards for such common household appliances as refrigerators could be facing delays that, if they go on long enough, could spark litigation, uncertainty within the industry, and perhaps even an unnecessary cost to the environment.
The Obama administration pushed the standards program — rooted in the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1987 and succeeding laws — into overdrive. As part of its ambitious climate policies, Obama's team finalized more than 40 new standards. Each reduced U.S. energy use, as well as customer expenses and greenhouse gas emissions.
A few of the later rules failed to make it past the finish line at the end of the Obama years — including one for portable air conditioners and another for commercial boilers — and were promptly frozen by the Trump administration. A coalition of states and several environmental groups are suing to get those rules finalized, claiming they would save consumers $24 billion over three decades.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda seems poised to further entrain these types of rules going forward.
A Trump executive order issued this year called for repealing two regulations for every new one issued. And last week Neomi Rao, Trump’s regulatory czar, said the administration had repealed 67 regulations and issued only three new ones.
At the same time, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget, which Rao heads, released a “Unified Agenda” for regulations. It listed a large number of potential energy-efficiency measures as “long-term actions,” meaning they are “items under development but for which the agency does not expect to have a regulatory action within the 12 months after publication."
That quickly prompted outrage among groups that watch such things closely.
“They basically have published their plan to put the national standards program on ice,” said Andrew DeLaski, the executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. His group says the Energy Department has “indefinitely deferred action” on 20 standards.
The thing about these standards is that, well, they’re required by law. The Energy Department is supposed to revise the standards every six years or issue a decision not to do so, DeLaski explained. Manufacturers often work with Energy Department regulators to come to a compromise.
DeLaski’s group and other environmentalists say the department has missed several deadlines and seems poised to blow many more. Three standards for major, well-known appliances on the “long-term action” list include refrigerators, clothes washers, and water heaters.
The Energy Department did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment on the standards.
Missed deadlines, environmentalists say, could ultimately lead to litigation.
“Given in particular the number of standards that they are clearly not going to be working on and the enormous energy savings at stake, I would expect litigation on this if they continue to fall behind,” said Timothy Ballo, an attorney with Earthjustice.
Industry groups that closely watch the standards program also want it to continue in a regular and predictable way — but they’re not necessarily worried yet.
“I think we’re probably willing to give them a little more latitude than our friends in the environmental community,” said Francis Dietz, vice president for public affairs at the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI).
“But we have a limit, too. If you get to a point where you’re too behind, then we would want to rectify that. But right now, we’re not overly alarmed by it.”
Dietz emphasized that it’s wrong to characterize the actions by the administration as a rollback — he says a better word would be “delay.”
The companies in Dietz’s group make, among other things, commercial packaged boilers, non-weatherized gas furnaces for homes and gas furnaces for mobile homes, and commercial water heaters. All are listed as “long-term” actions in the administration's plan, which currently states “next action undetermined.”
It’s particularly striking that one of the standards on the “long-term actions” list involves refrigerators, said Lauren Urbanek, an energy policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Since the standards program went into effect, refrigerators use about a quarter of what they had used in the '70s, and they’re generally about 20 percent bigger and they cost about half the cost of what you could get in the '70s,” she said. “And that’s all thanks to the standards program.”
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-- One step closer to ANWR drilling: Lawmakers may soon end a decades-long ban on energy development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but any actual drilling in the area may be years away, report Bloomberg’s Ari Natter and Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
The House’s initial Tuesday vote approved a Republican tax plan that includes “a provision mandating that the Interior Department hold lease sales in the so-called 1002 area of the Arctic Refuge, a coastal portion of the 19-million-acre federally protected wilderness area. The refuge is estimated to contain 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude.”
The Senate passed the tax overhaul with ANWR in it early Wednesday. Due to a procedural snag, the House will have to revote on the plan again today. Nonetheless, the tax measure is expected to be rushed onto the president's desk for his signature Wednesday.
Even so, oil production in the refuge could still be ways away. A public comment period, environmental reviews and potential legal challenges could push drilling back at least a decade, Natter and Dlouhy write. Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official extends that timeline even further. “It’s still an open question about whether drilling will ever happen there," he told Bloomberg.
Opening ANWR would be a major victory for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has long pushed for it.
Here's an interesting observation via CNN's Ashley Killough:
Close-up of Sen. Murkowski's Hulk scarf, along with Hulk earrings, as a tribute to the late Sen. Ted Stevens pic.twitter.com/O4nGANz9E3— Ashley Killough (@KilloughCNN) December 20, 2017
Sen. Murkowski is wearing Hulk earrings today in honor of the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who wore a Hulk tie when he would try to get ANWR passed. She's never worn them until today, when the Senate will likely get it passed through tax reform. pic.twitter.com/OMwhHctQiw— Ashley Killough (@KilloughCNN) December 19, 2017
-- HuffPost’s Chris D’Angelo writes on the six House Republican who, despite signing a letter to GOP leaders in late November opposing ANWR drilling, voted for the tax bill on Tuesday: “In a late November letter to congressional party leaders, GOP Reps. Dave Reichert (Wash.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Ryan Costello (Pa.), Patrick Meehan (Pa.), Mark Sanford (S.C.) and Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) ― and six of their colleagues ― said [ANWR], ‘stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring natural legacy.’ ‘Any development footprint in the refuge stands to disrupt this fragile, critically important landscape,’ the group wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)… But on Tuesday, Reichert, Fitzpatrick, Costello, Meehan, Sanford and Curbelo all voted in favor of the final tax proposal.”
-- The Post’s Mooney and Steven Mufson explore the environmental impact of bitcoin, which is currently exploding on the stock market. Turns out all that cryptocurrency has an impact on the environment.
"The reason bitcoin uses a lot of energy is rooted in the way the bitcoin network operates. A digital currency, bitcoin is not controlled by any central bank or commercial clearinghouse but by a network of users who expend large amounts of computing power, and thus energy, building a so-called “blockchain” of bitcoin payments transactions.
To compile this comprehensive record, the bitcoin network relies on 'miners.' Bitcoin miners have to perform a phenomenally large number of computer calculations to track and verify transactions and solve complex puzzles to obtain bitcoin rewards. As bitcoins become more popular and valuable, the puzzles miners face grow more difficult, and therefore the demand for high-powered computer processing grows as well. That means more energy usage.
But, the alarmist predictions seem just that -- some have said that bitcoin operations will consume “all the world’s energy by 2020” or even use as much energy as Denmark. Several experts told our reporters the electronic money will likely only use as much as 1 to 4 gigawatts of electricity, or the output from one to three nuclear reactors. That would amount to less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity alone and no more than 0.14 percent of global electricity generation.
-- Ch-ina: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has launched a push to boost the production of critical minerals in the United States in the hopes of reducing imports from China, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. “It is time for the U.S. to take a leading position,” Zinke told reporters on Tuesday. “And it’s not that we don’t have the minerals in the U.S. It’s likely we do.”
The secretary’s new initiative comes as the U.S. Geological Survey published a report finding 20 of the 23 critical minerals used in the United States are imported from China. It all comes down to price, Eilperin writes. Zinke and other department officials acknowledged China, which has led global production of minerals since 1995, has done so in part because it sells them for less.
“We do know there are deposits that could, in theory, supply all of our needs,” said Larry Meinert, USGS acting deputy associate director for energy and minerals. “This gets into basic economics, supply and demand.”
Eilperin reports officials did not detail how the United States would increase production given the competitive pricing overseas.
-- Controversial contract, canceled: The EPA is scrubbing a $120,000 contract with a Republican public affairs and opposition research company after widespread scrutiny over the firm’s work, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. Definers Public Affairs, whose contract with the administration was first reported by Mother Jones, had promised to deliver “war-room” style media tracking for the department under Scott Pruitt.
Dennis notes the EPA defended the contract and said the firm was hired largely as a sophisticated news clipping service. The company’s president, Joe Pounder, told Brady the decision to part ways was mutual. “Definers offered EPA a better and more efficient news clipping service that would give EPA’s employees real-time news at a lower cost than what previous administrations paid for more antiquated clipping services,” Pounder said in an emailed statement. “But it’s become clear this will become a distraction.”
Definers was in the spotlight after the New York Times reported that its vice president, Allan Blutstein, filed scores of Freedom of Information Act requests with the EPA, some of which targeted the email correspondence of employees who were critical of the department in the Trump administration.
-- Aid to Puerto Rico is causing headaches for House Republican leaders with their right flank, which doesn't want to see the massive $81 billion disaster-relief measure tacked onto the year-end spending bill (which, incidentally, would keep the government funded past this Friday). Hardliners are angry about the deficit-busting implications of the relief package, which is a bit ironic given the fact that many of them voted for the tax overhaul that analysts say will also spike the deficit.
The latest reporting, from Politico's John Bresnahan and Rachael Bade, suggests the disaster aid measure will ride separately from the government funding bill.
"It is still unclear whether GOP leaders will include funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program as part of the new funding bill. And while some defense programs are expected to get a boost under the plan, those details are still under wraps.
A proposal to reauthorize so-called Section 702 spying powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will go as a standalone bill as well."
Stay tuned: this fight seems far from over.
-- “That is how you help Puerto Rico?:” As Republicans geared up to pass their tax overhaul yesterday, Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) made a final plea to lawmakers to oppose a bill she said “betrays” the promise Congress made to Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria.
“After Maria, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including the Republican leadership, went to Puerto Rico. They looked the Puerto Rican people in the eye and promised to help. This bill betrays that promise,” she said on the House floor. Velazquez repeatedly warned lawmakers the tax bill would treat the U.S. territory as a “foreign jurisdiction,” and levy a 20 percent excise tax on goods produced by U.S. subsidiaries on the island.
She claims the provisions in the bill would cost Puerto Rico 200,000 jobs.
“That is how you help Puerto Rico? This bill is morally bankrupt. It harms American citizens everywhere, and especially the 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico."
RIGHT NOW: Democrats are on the House Floor to say NO Tax Scam! This heartless bill helps the rich get richer at the expense of Puerto Rico’s recovery, middle-class Americans, seniors & children. No way you have my vote! pic.twitter.com/xKH2fPDVgN— Rep. Nydia Velazquez (@NydiaVelazquez) December 19, 2017
-- Rubio vs. Rosselló: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says he is “disappointed” in Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for criticizing his decision to vote for the Republican tax overhaul. Rosselló told the Miami Herald he was “very disappointed with the fact the Senator Rubio is going to be voting for this tax bill particularly when we had the opportunity to address the potentially devastating effects on Puerto Rico.”
Politico’s Marc Caputo and Colin Wilhelm report Rubio said he was “surprised by the remarks because he helped Puerto Rico defeat a ‘truly devastating’ measure in the bill: a tax on subsidiaries designed to prevent corporations from avoiding taxes by stashing money overseas. But a similar provision passed the Senate — albeit with lighter penalties — and Rubio said that Rosselló then shifted his attention to another issue concerning the taxation of intellectual property that negatively affects the island.”
-- What’s next for power in Puerto Rico?: One recurring question since Hurricane Maria first barreled through the island three months ago has been what to do with Puerto Rico’s electrical grid. Utility Dive has a look at how solar power and renewable energy may fit into the a reimagined grid.
“[A]longside restoration work, new visions for Puerto Rico's electric grid are emerging. While thousands of linemen from around the country continue to repair the system, the utility industry and government are simultaneously developing a longer-term vision for the island's electric system,” writes Robert Walton.
“As multiple concepts come to the table, the challenge will be integrating modern grid architecture while keeping in place some of the basic grid building blocks. An industry work group has developed a plan that builds on the island's last integrated resource plan, while AES, which owns a large coal plant on the island, has floated a concept that is focused on solar and storage. But while Puerto Rico's grid will be modernized and renewables added, the backbone of the system will remain fairly traditional.”
-- California is still burning: And the largest of this month’s fires in Southern California continues to grow. The Thomas Fire is now the second largest wildfire in the state’s modern history, burning through 272,000 acres as of Tuesday evening. The blaze was 55 percent contained, and fire officials believe it won’t be fully contained until Jan. 8, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The fire has destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, and is blamed for two deaths. Deputy Chief Mark Brown of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Monday he expects the fire to exceed the record for the largest blaze in the state’s recorded history: the 2003 Cedar Fire that burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County,
Firefighters had a brief couple of days with calmer winds, but the National Weather Service forecast wind gusts topping 40 mph, with isolated gusts up to 60 mph. The Santa Barbara County side of the blaze will experience strong winds on Wednesday afternoon and evening before gusts pick up on the Ventura County side Wednesday night and into Thursday morning.
-- What’s with all the snow?: Scientists are surprised by a new set of data revealing a dramatic increase in snowfall in the Denali National Park in Alaska, even in a time of increased global warming.
The Post’s Chris Mooney reports researchers drilled into the snow to extract ice cores that provide historical context for 1,000 years of snowfall and found an “upswing in the rates of snowfall beginning around the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, when humans began burning fossil fuels to produce energy in large quantities."
Erich Osterberg, a Dartmouth researcher who was one of the study’s authors, told Mooney snowfall before the Industrial Revolution average eight feet a year. Now, there’s 18 feet of fresh snow.
“The researchers attribute part of the snowfall increase to the atmosphere’s retaining more water vapor,” Mooney writes, “but also say that the warming up of the tropical Pacific Ocean changed atmospheric patterns, leading more storms to track across Alaska — thus accounting for the one-two punch.”
-- Baked Alaska: Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow reports on Alaska's other weather extreme. In Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau, as well as in many other towns, there are record warm temperatures for December.
"In Fairbanks, temperatures have averaged an incredible 20 degrees above normal. Setting aside Dec. 1, every day has been warmer than normal, often much warmer. Most days have seen highs near 30 and lows near 10. That might sound cold, but the normal high is in the single digits and the normal low around minus-10...On Dec. 8, Juneau soared to 54 degrees, tying its warmest temperature ever recorded during the month...During the middle of the month, Anchorage saw its temperature climb to at least 45 degrees on four straight days, a record span for December. It also tied its warmest winter day on record, Dec. 11, with an average temperature of 41.5 degrees. The low temperature that day of 37 degrees matched the warmest of any winter month in history."
The latest on Atlanta’s outage: The FBI is now part of the investigation into what caused the fire that cut off the power to the world’s busiest airport, but an agency spokesman said there is no indication of a connection to terrorism, according to the Associated Press:
"The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has also been involved in the investigation, Georgia Power spokesman Craig Bell said... No conclusions have been drawn as to the cause of the fire, which took out the airport’s power supply and its backup electricity for about 11 hours Sunday. The blackout stranded thousands of passengers on grounded jets and in darkened concourses and led to the cancellation of more than 1,500 flights just ahead of the frenzied holiday travel period."
Bell told the AP the goal is to “rule out any possible scenario that wasn’t equipment malfunction,” but said he doesn’t “expect any answers like that to come forth for a few days.”
- The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a U.S. Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium Informational Webinar.
- The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation & Infrastructure will hold a hearing on freight movement.
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