THE LIGHTBULB

Did you hear what Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said? 

Not what grabbed all the headlines yesterday: back during a February 2016 radio interview Pruitt, then Oklahoma's attorney general, said, “Donald Trump in the White House would be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama.” The watchdog group Documented timed the release of audio from the interview with Pruitt's trip to Capitol Hill for an oversight hearing, lending rhetorical ammunition to Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Back then, Pruitt (who was at the time a Jeb Bush supporter) argued a potential President Trump would take “unapologetic steps to use executive power to confront Congress in a way that is truly unconstitutional” — a sentiment shared by some congressional Democrats today.

The EPA administrator joins a sizable list of repentant Trump administration officialsincluding his own No. 2 at the agency, who balked early in the 2016 race at the thought of Trump becoming president. Minutes after the hearing ended, Pruitt sent out a statement saying that he has changed his mind: “After meeting him, and now having the honor of working for him, it is abundantly clear that President Trump is the most consequential leader of our time.”

However, there was something less headline-grabbing but more significant that Pruitt did in his rare appearance before lawmakers yesterday that should be of greater import to those concerned about climate change. The EPA chief left the door open to reconsidering a landmark 2009 finding from agency scientists that the warming caused by buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a danger to human health.

“We have not made a decision or determination on that,” Pruitt said when asked by the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), whether he wants to leave th “endangerment finding” alone.

The remark stands in stark contrast to what Pruitt told the same committee one year ago this month — when he was still seeking the votes in the Senate to become EPA administrator.

In January 2017, Pruitt told the same Senate committee that “the endangerment finding is there and needs to be enforced and respected.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed Pruitt to ensure he had a firm commitment.  “You will not review that scientific finding?” the senator asked last year.

There is nothing that I know that would cause a review at this point,” Pruitt responded.

Ruling in 2007 on a lawsuit Massachusetts brought against the George W. Bush administration, the Supreme Court found the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide if it determined to have endangered human health. So, one of the first things President Barack Obama's EPA set out to do was to study the issue, finding in 2009 that the atmosphere-warming effects of greenhouse gases do indeed pose a threat to people.

That 2009 scientific document gives the EPA legal justification under the Clean Air Act to regulate atmosphere-warming emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane. Undermining that Supreme Court-backed determination would pull the rug out from any future effort to regulate those gases, even in the future. As such, getting rid of the finding is the Holy Grail of environmental policy for some conservative critics who question the consensus among climate scientists that humans do warm the globe.

“The endangerment finding is the root of all global warming evil at the EPA, Steve Milloy, an attorney and frequent EPA critic, told the Heartland conference in November, “and we’re trying to figure out here what is the best way to get that thing reconsidered and undone.”

A few months earlier, Pruitt raised the hopes of those conservative critics by floating the idea of starting a “red team-blue team” exercise, akin to those used in strategic military planning, to debate the role that carbon dioxide plays in the Earth's climate system. 

“What the American people deserve, I think, is a true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2,” Pruitt told Breitbart in June.

Such a debate, which Pruitt has yet to stage, raised questions among government and industry officials about whether Pruitt intends to try to roll back the endangerment finding.

But as outside legal experts say — and as Pruitt probably understands — unwinding a scientific finding on man-made climate change that has the backing of 97 percent of scientific studies that took a stance on the issue will be a tough task for the EPA. It's one with no guarantee of success.

In the Senate this week, Pruitt just gave a hint that he may be up for the challenge.  

POWER PLAYS

— More from Pruitt’s hearing:

  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pressed Pruitt on the 2016 interview slamming Trump's commitment to the Constitution: “Do you recall saying that?” Pruitt simply replied “I don’t, senator. I don’t echo that today at all.”
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) asked Pruitt about his visit to Morocco last year to promote natural gas exports, probing his reason for the trip. “I don’t understand what the sale of natural gas has to do with the EPA’s mission,” she said, adding that such a trip would make sense for someone running for office in Oklahoma.
  • Duckworth posed this question about Pruitt's trip: "Can I assume, like all decent Americans, you did not find Morocco, a North African nation, to be a shithole when you visited?” she asked. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo), the committee's chairman, announced that Duckworth's time had expired before Pruitt could answer the question.
  • Pruitt told Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) the funding cut to the Bay Journal, a publication that covered environmental issues related to the Chesapeake Bay, is “under reconsideration.” The EPA canceled a grant to the publication after covering it for nearly three decades. “I learned [of] that decision after the fact,” Pruitt said, per the Baltimore Sun. “I think it was probably a decision that should not have been made in the way that it was.”

— On to the main event: President Trump gave his first State of the Union address Tuesday evening. Here are some highlights on the energy and environmental front:

  • Trump boasted about regulations the administration eliminated “in a drive to make Washington accountable.” Much of that activity has come in the environmental arena. The Trump administration sought in 2017 to roll back 63 environmental rules across all agencies through executive orders, Cabinet-level decisions or signed legislation — a number greater than in any other policy area, according to The Post's analysis.
  • Two sentences, three dubious assertions. "We have ended the war on American energy – and we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal," Trump said. "We are now an exporter of energy to the world.” The problem, via The Post's Steven Mufson: "There has never been a war on American Energy. President Obama advocated an 'all of the above”' energy strategy." And while the United States exports some of its crude oil (only after Obama and Congress lifted the oil export ban), the nation is still a net energy importer.
  • "We have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal," Trump added. Like he has in the past, Trump inaccurately used the phrase "clean coal" to describe basically all coal, even though the term "clean coal" has come to refer to specific technology designed to capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks.
  • Trump applauded ExxonMobil for pledging to spend $50 billion in the United States over the next five years. Though chief executive Darren Woods blogged about the investment just in time for Trump to tout it as evidence of the benefits from the Republican tax overhaul, the vast majority of that spending was already in the works.
  • Trump praised Americans who "push the bounds of science and discovery." Past presidents have dwelled a bit more on NASA missions and medical breakthroughs, The Post's Ben Guarino writes. But Trump gave science that one and only one mention.

  • The Democratic response: While he referred to an “all-out war on environmental protection,” Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), who delivered the Democratic Party's official response to Trump's address, omitted any mention of climate change specifically in his rebuttal, HuffPost reports.

— Bill Nye feels the heat: 500 Women Scientists, a science-advocacy group, called out Bill Nye ahead of his appearance as a guest at the State of the Union. “As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency,” the group wrote in a blog post in the Scientific American published Tuesday. That man is Jim Bridenstine, a GOP lawmaker from Oklahoma who hosted Nye and who is Trump's pick to run NASA. Bridenstine has previously expressed skepticism of human-caused global warming.

A petition with more than 35,000 signatures on ClimateTruth.org also called on Nye to “not support the Trump administration’s disastrous climate denial agenda,” per Bloomberg. But Nye defended his attendance in Tuesday tweets:

National Security
The new report cites flooding, drought and extreme temperature.
Missy Ryan
THERMOMETER

— The hurricane season’s toll: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria now rank in the top five most expensive hurricanes, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hurricane Katrina still ranks in the top spot, per the report, but Hurricane Sandy was knocked off its second-place ranking by the intense 2017 season, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports

— There’s an emoji for that: A team of New York-based artists have come up with the newest way to communicate about the changing climate: The Climoji project. By making emoji for wildfires, smog-filled cities, emaciated polar bears, and methane-producing cows, its creators "are hoping that the Climoji can act as the equivalent of a flashing sign, a humorous conversation-starter or an alert signal,” NYU professor Marina Zurkow, who is leading the project, told The Post’s Allyson Chiu.

— How homebodies help the planet: As Americans spend more time staying put during the workweek, shifting their lifestyles to work from home and shop online, they are decreasing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, the New York Times reports. New research has found Americans spent 7.8 more days at home in 2012 compared with 2003, reducing energy demand nationwide by 1,700 trillion BTUs. 

State officials say residents of “colonias” should move elsewhere, but many refuse to go.
Maria Sacchetti
Post Nation
The Democratic majority leader of California denied that he wanted to criminalize unsolicited straw distribution, though his bill would do just that.
Avi Selk
OIL CHECK

— Volkswagen fallout: The German carmaker suspended its chief lobbyist on Tuesday amid the controversy around a fraudulent study the company admitted was set up to produce false data about its diesel-powered vehicles. “Environmental groups and other critics of Volkswagen said the suspension of Mr. Steg, whose formal title at Volkswagen is head of external relations and sustainability, made him a sacrificial lamb meant to insulate the company’s top managers from consequences,” the New York Times reported

— More on Exxon’s windfall: Following an announcement of a $50 billion investment in the United States for the next five years, ExxonMobil said it will triple its daily oil production in the Permian Basin to 600,000 barrels of oil by 2025, per CNBC. The Permian Basin, which runs beneath western Texas and eastern New Mexico, has become one of the most productive oil fields in the nation

Shares of Chesapeake Energy sank Tuesday, after the natural gas and oil exploration company laid off 13% of its workforce, primarily at its Oklahoma City campus.
MarketWatch
DAYBOOK

Today

  • George Washington University’s Sustainability Collaborative and Goethe Institut discussion on "Creating the Paris Path on Climate Change."
     
  • MIT hosts a discussion on water management for future climate scenarios.

Coming Up

  • FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee is scheduled to speak at the 31st annual Power and Gas M&A Symposium on Thursday.
     
  • Columbia University’s Energy Symposium begins on Thursday.
     
  • Bloomberg New Energy Finance holds its Future of Mobility Summit in Palo Alto, Calif. on Thursday and Friday.
     
  • George Mason University’s holds its 14th annual Symposium of the Journal of Law, Economics and Policy on Friday. 
EXTRA MILEAGE

"It was just completely bonkers": The Post's Amy Wang writes about the discovery of "the Holy Grail of dinosaurs" in Egypt — the left dentary, or lower jaw bone, of the new titanosaurian dinosaur as it was found in an approximately 80-million-year-old rock formation. The dinosaur, named Mansourasaurus and seen in the artist rendering above, would have been roughly the length of a school bus and weighed about the same as an African bull elephant.