Environmental issues did not come up very much during the special Senate election in Alabama, a race dominated by allegations against Republican candidate Roy Moore that he pursued inappropriate relationships with minors as an adult.
But after being sworn in to the Senate on Wednesday, Doug Jones, the Democratic victor in that race, along with Minnesota’s newly appointed senator, Tina Smith, have thrown a wrench into how the chamber will set energy policy going forward.
With Jones replacing Republican Luther Strange and Smith replacing Democrat Al Franken, who resigned after facing his own allegations of groping, Republicans’ 52-vote majority in the chamber has narrowed to just 51.
That small change has a disproportionate effect on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Both Strange and Franken served on the panel, meaning that if Jones and Smith simply replaced them, committee membership would be tied.
Republicans won’t let that happen, giving congressional leaders two options: Either reshuffle committee assignments to bring the committee’s balance back to 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats, or let the committee operate with one fewer member from each party.
With 23 members (Franken and Strange included), the committee was at the largest it has ever been since at least 2011 — meaning the option of a 21-member panel is not out of the question.
Aides to both Republicans and Democrats on the committee said the final call will be made by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
As for how either new Democrat could tip the balance on the key panel if they do get added: Smith is a renewable energy advocate, pressing as Minnesota’s lieutenant governor to raise the state's renewable energy standard for electricity generation to 50 percent by 2030.
And Jones has earned high marks from environmental groups, such as the League of Conservation Voters, because of his support for renewable investment and his opposition to President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.
Unlike most other red states with Democratic senators, such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) who sometimes side with Republicans on environmental issues, Alabama is not a significant fossil-fuel producer.
What neither Smith nor Jones is likely to replace is Franken’s ability to press congressional witnesses on climate change issues with equal portions of wit and scientific rigor. Last year, before the misconduct allegations, clips of Franken questioning Energy Secretary Rick Perry and other Trump officials went viral, making Franken the “most noticeable” advocate on climate change in the chamber, according to E&E News reporter Scott Waldman.
See the exchange below:
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— A former EPA intern spills about feeling “demoralized:” Former intern Katie Miller, a public policy student at the University of Maryland, detailed her experience in a Post op-ed, describing “clues that this was an agency under siege in the Trump administration.” She said the impact of policy shifts under Trump were “impossible to miss.” “I was helping to communicate the EPA’s goals to the public. And those goals were no longer about putting the environment first, especially if doing so would affect American industries.”
Miller also described an assignment for which she was instructed to avoid mentions of “climate change” or “green”on social media accounts, and an instance in which she asked EPA chief Scott Pruitt about it. “He paused for a brief second. ‘No, I think that actually we’re trying to start a discussion about it.’ I rephrased my question, and he gave me an equally dissatisfying answer, referring me to his assistant. (Two interns who were there with me confirmed my recollection.) But I was still glad I asked. At an event where Pruitt appeared to expect polite encounters from awed interns, I caught him off guard,” she wrote.
— Offshore war: Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is threatening to try to block the Trump administration from dismantling offshore oil drilling rules, which it proposed doing at the end of 2017. Nelson intends to introduce a resolution to stop the proposed revisions to the safety rules issued after the Deepwater Horizon disaster using the Congressional Review Act — the same law Republicans used last year to slash last-minute Obama administration regulations with only a simply-majority vote in the Senate.
Will the resolution work? Unlikely. Not only would it need to pass both the House and Senate, President Trump, whose deputies have proposed the changes, would have to sign it. But Nelson, who before Jones joined the Senate was the only Democratic senator representing a Gulf Coast state, is trying to bolster his resume before what may be a tough reelection campaign against Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) in 2018.
— New year, new cuts: The National Park Service will start the new year by offering employees voluntary buyout packages, E&E News reported.
It’s not clear how many of the Park Service’s 20,000 jobs are being considered for downsizing, per the report: “Jeremy Barnum, acting chief of public affairs for the Park Service, contended the primary purpose of the buyouts is not to reduce expenses. ‘The general intention is to provide parks and programs with a faster way to restructure their workforce to make room in budgets for potentially higher priority positions,’ Barnum said.
In the Dec. 20 memo, Reynolds told employees that budget cuts in recent years had ‘constrained the ability of NPS units’ to recruit and fill positions through attrition, leaving both permanent and critical seasonal positions open.”
— Expanding access to disaster funds: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has changed a policy that limited religious groups from qualifying for disaster relief funds, months after Trump pushed for the change in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports: “With lawsuits pending in Texas and Florida from churches and synagogues challenging the limits, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday that it is removing language in its rules that has often disqualified religious groups from aid available to other nonprofits. ‘Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of [Public Assistance] nonprofit applicants,’ FEMA Recovery Directorate Assistant Administrator Alex Amparo wrote in a new manual released Tuesday.”
— Meanwhile, workers continue to try to bring back power to Puerto Rico:
- Through mutual assistance agreements, utilities across the country are sending nearly 1,500 workers to help with aid efforts, Utility Dive reports, citing data from Edison Electric Institute.
- As part of a nationwide relief effort, the largest electric utility in Arizona is sending power line workers, support staff and equipment. Arizona Public Service Co. will send 50 workers to Puerto Rico, per the Associated Press, as local officials report that nearly half of residents are still without power.
- Asked about relief efforts at a roundtable this week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) vowed to “keep doing everything we can to help them get back to a normal life as fast as we can,” reports WUSF Public Media.
- CBS News’s David Begnaud reports FEMA is extending the Transitional Shelter Assistance program through late March in order to provide short-term shelter for residents displaced by storm-ravaged areas.
— Utility merger pays for customers, too: Virginia-based utility giant Dominion Energy will purchase South Carolina’s SCANA and plans to pay out $1.3 billion to S.C. Electric & Gas customers after the merger, according to The Post and Courier. Average refunds to customers will be $1,000, per the report, and will be based on their power use during the previous year.
Why it matters? While Dominion will also absorb much of costs of the failed V.C. Summer nuclear reactors, the Virginia-based utility also wants electricity consumers to foot part of the bills for the construction of the incomplete nuclear reactors, despite the fact they will never produce a megawatt of power.
Dominion is asking South Carolina lawmakers to keep a law that allows charging customers for the unfinished reactors on the books. Legislative leaders in the state suggested this week they want to do otherwise. "The premise is, we protect the ratepayers," South Carolina House Majority Leader Gary Simrill (R) told The Post and Courier.
— Pipeline plans, paused: Pennsylvania regulators have ordered construction to stop on a controversial natural gas pipeline over “egregious and willful violations” of state law, according to local ABC station WPVI. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered work on the Mariner East II pipeline to be suspended until the company, Sunoco, complies with specific terms.
The Hill’s Timothy Cama reports the department “alleges dozens of legal violations by Sunoco since May, including releases of fluids into waterways, multiple unauthorized uses of horizontal drilling, unauthorized construction over a creek, violation of an order to re-evaluate construction techniques and unauthorized construction in a wild trout fishery.”
— California vs. climate change: The nation's largest state is looking to prohibit the sale of any new vehicles powered by fossil fuels by 2040, Bloomberg reports. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has been supportive of the measure, which was discussed at a meeting of the state's powerful air quality regulator.
“If the measure becomes law, by January 1, 2040, all new passenger vehicles sold in California would have to be so-called zero emission vehicles such as battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars. More cars are sold each year in California than in any other state -- and more than in some countries. If adopted, the measure would eliminate a huge chunk of carbon emissions as part of the state’s quest to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.”
— What exactly is a “bomb cyclone?" On Tuesday, social media had a lot to say about Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow’s name for the explosive storm making its way up the East Coast. But what is this weather event really and what’s with the hyperbolic name?
Matthew Cappucci explains for The Post the name is “actually rooted in the science of winter storms:” “Though it seems as if meteorologists are using hyperbole to draw in more viewers, for a storm to be classified as a ‘bomb’ it actually has to meet a stringent set of criteria. ‘Explosive bombogenesis’ occurs most often in the winter, and it’s almost always referring to a storm that tracks up the East Coast. Nor’easters tend to be bombs… [F]or a storm to rank a ‘bomb,’ it must rapidly intensify — it has to drop at least 24 millibars in 24 hours. The storm expected to ride up the East Coast and strike New England looks as if it will be a classic bomb cyclone, with the expectation of a 50-millibar drop in about 24 hours.”
The storm began to blast the East Coast on Wednesday, already draping states in the South with an unprecedented amount of snow, The Post’s Mark Berman reports.
The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have declared states of emergency and more than 2,000 flights were preemptively canceled ahead of the brutal conditions on Thursday, Berman notes. Areas in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast are expecting record-low temperatures on Friday. Samenow writes the storm, still expected to become a “bomb cyclone,” could rank as the most intense in decades over the waters east of New England for this time of year.
Here are some visuals. From Capital Weather Gang:
Good morning, Mr. Bomb Cyclone. pic.twitter.com/PnrNgYfjaB— Capital Weather Gang (@capitalweather) January 4, 2018
From Dakota Smith, who researches climate risk at NCAR:
My goodness the one-minute infrared imagery of this storm is gorgeous. pic.twitter.com/EJH3J3Pvh2— Dakota Smith (@weatherdak) January 4, 2018
Here's the accompanying water vapor imagery. 😍 pic.twitter.com/as6P4VzeP7— Dakota Smith (@weatherdak) January 4, 2018
From local ABC reporter Brandi Hitt:
From South Florida station WSVN 7:
Here's a great dramatic reading from BuzzFeed News's AM to DM on Capital Weather Gang's initial "bomb cyclone" report:
— Welcome to a snowier Antarctica: A new study has found large spikes in snow accumulation in eastern Antarctica, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. If such a pattern continues, it could lead to a decrease in the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise, one of the more dire consequences of climate change.
“Based on a more than 500-foot-long ice core extracted from the thick sheet and containing a snowfall record dating back 2,000 years, the researchers found snow accumulation levels had been rising since around 1900. And the increase is most marked in recent decades, up through the year 2010," Mooney writes. " A huge amount of snow falls there every year — the equivalent of 5 to 7 millimeters of sea level rise annually, the study states.
But at the same time, Medley explained, that snowfall is usually balanced by the loss of ice around the periphery of the ice sheet, where it melts in contact with ocean waters or slides out into sea and eventually floats away in large chunks. Any tweak to either side of this equation — more snowfall, or more ice loss — would change Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise.”
- The IAFOR International Conference on Sustainability, Energy and the Environment begins in Honolulu.
- The American Petroleum Institute holds a luncheon and press conference on "The State of American Energy 2018” on Jan. 9.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a discussion on political appointment process in the energy and environmental fields on Jan. 9.
- The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a “Better Buildings peer exchange call to discuss what’s on the horizon for residential energy efficiency in 2018” on Jan. 11.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts a discussion with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Jan. 11.
- Politico holds an event on "Driverless Cars and the Future of Mobility" on Jan. 16.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center hosts FERC commissioners Neil Chatterjee and Cheryl LaFleur for a discussion on the proposed Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule on Jan. 16.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds its 6th annual Lunch & Learn event to decide what topics to cover in 2018 on Jan. 23.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on Canada’s energy future on Jan. 23.
Here are three takeaways from the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff about President Trump:
Late-night comedians Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah react to the feud between President Trump and former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon:
Watch a Charleston, S.C. resident ski out of her doorway to get through the snow:
Watch a girl in Florida delight in her first snowfall: