The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump under pressure to keep an Obama-era climate decision he hasn't tried to kill (yet)

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with Paulina Firozi


The Trump administration has over the past year worked to shatter greenhouse-gas emission rules issued under President Barack Obama.

But there is at least one sliver of the Obama administration’s climate agenda that Trump's deputies are considering keeping. And in recent weeks, a coalition of business associations, conservative pundits and Republican lawmakers have joined forces to sell the White House on the measure as a job maker for the self-proclaimed “greatest jobs president that God ever created.” 

As with so many things, however, there is a chance that chaos at the White House may get in the way.

In 2016, world leaders struck a deal to phase out the use of a class of chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners. Brokered in the capital of Rwanda, the deal known as the Kigali Amendment is an update to the Montreal Protocol, a landmark 1980s treaty approved by the U.S. Senate curbing the use of chemicals depleting the Earth’s protective ozone layer.  Now, interest groups seem to have a chance of getting a GOP-led Senate -- and Trump -- to make it stronger.

The agreement would phase out HFCs, which were used as a replacement for other chemicals in air conditioners and refrigerators initially reduced by the Montreal Protocol. HFCs have a less-acute effect on the ozone layer, but their contribution to Earth’s climate became clear only years later -- like carbon dioxide and methane, they trap heat and warm the atmosphere.  

As with all treaties (or in this case, an amendment to a treaty), Kigali needs two-thirds approval of the Senate — and the signature of a president long suspicious of climate change.

That bar is high, but interest groups are mounting pressure on several fronts. On Friday, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) introduced a bill meant to give the Environmental Protection Agency the power to implement the Kigali Amendment, should it be ratified. The bill addresses a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last year ruling the Clean Air Act does not give the agency authority to end the use of HFCs.

“It’s not often that Democrats, Republicans, industry and environmental groups come together to agree on anything,” Kennedy said in a statement, “but we are all in agreement on this one.” One other Senate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, initially sponsored the legislation, along with three Democrats, including Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Environmental and Public Works Committee.

One of the arguments being deployed by pro-Kigali advocates they hope resonates with Trump: jobs. As HFCs are phased out, a race is on between companies and nations to find and manufacture replacement chemicals. Last year, Honeywell opened a new $300 million plant to make the next generation of refrigerants — in, as it happens, Kennedy’s home state of Louisiana. 

The cost of phasing out a single type of coolant pales in comparison, as some Republicans see it, to the price the world economy would pay for curbing the burning of fossil fuels.

This month, during a speech at the conservative Hudson Institute, magazine publisher Steve Forbes called the HFC amendment “one of those rare environmental policies that almost offers something to everyone.” 

Another international agreement, the Paris climate accord, which allowed nations to voluntarily reduce emissions, was by comparison “a bad deal,” according to Forbes. In May, Trump announced the United States would pull out of the Paris deal.

“The president had it right on that one,” Forbes said.

So far, the pro-Kigali crowd has been "cautiously optimistic" about the reception they have received at the White House, according to Francis Dietz, vice president of public affairs at the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute.

"We've just been heartened by how receptive they've been over there to understanding the reasons why we support it and how important it is for U.S. industry," Dietz said. "They've listened to that."

Indeed in November, Judy Garber, a principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, called the amendment a "pragmatic and balanced approach" to limiting HFCs.

Of course, other industry groups tried in vain to pressure the Trump administration to stay in the Paris accord. It doesn't help that one of those doing that listening on Kigali recently left the White House.

George David Banks, a White House climate adviser seen as an ally on the HFC issue, resigned last week after failing to receive a permanent security clearance due to, he said, his admission that he smoking marijuana in 2013.

For now, Dietz is content with silence from the White House — and President Trump — since it took two to four years to ratify previous amendments to the Montreal Protocol.

"Really, he hasn't said anything about Kigali at all," he said. "To me, that is a good sign."


— Pruitt’s pricey travel: Under fire for the cost of his domestic and international travel, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over the weekend canceled a planned week-long trip to Israel. “We decided to postpone; the administrator looks forward to going in the future,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Ruth Eglash without providing an explicit reason for the change.

— Dealmaker-in-chief faces a decision: Next month, Saudi Arabia will announce the finalists of a multibillion-dollar sweepstakes for contracts to build a pair of nuclear power reactors in the desert. But if the United States — or more specifically, a U.S. consortium led by Westinghouse — wants to win, the Trump administration may need to "bend rules designed to limit nuclear proliferation in an unstable part of the world," reports The Post's Steven Mufson.

— Carbon capture project, advanced: The Energy Department announced last week it would award $44 million across seven projects to work on carbon-capture systems. The Bismarck Tribune reports $6 million was granted to researchers to work on a carbon-dioxide capture system for emissions from a North Dakota coal-fired plant. 

— "Largest Oil and Gas Lease Sale in U.S. History:" The Interior Department announced late last week a March 21 date for what it dubbed the largest oil and gas offshore auction in the nation’s history. Drilling leases for 77.3 million acres of federal waters off of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida will be auctioned less than a year after a “similar sale yielded little corporate interest,” Reuters notes.

— Meanwhile, some Democratic lawmakers are beginning to open up to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's idea of reorganizing his department. "Moving the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to Colorado would bring the agency closer to the vast public lands we all cherish and share, and that is a good thing,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), according to USA Today. Another Colorado Democrat, Sen. Michael Bennet, expressed conditional support of moving Interior offices out of Washington as well. 

— More energy woes for Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico’s state-run energy company said it will cut its energy reserves to save money as it struggles with a cash shortfall, the Associated Press reports. Some have concerns over destabilizing the fragile electric grid. The plan could lead to additional blackouts for the territory, still reeling after Hurricane Maria.

Ex-Interior chief Sally Jewell: I didn't even know I had a special flag (HuffPost)


— "It’s not fast enough:" The world is off target from the emission-reducing goals of the Paris climate agreement, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney report. “Even as renewable energy grows cheaper and automakers churn out battery-powered and more efficient cars, many nations around the world are nonetheless struggling to hit the relatively modest goals set in Paris,” they write. The reasons vary: In Brazil, deforestation still runs rampant; in India, new coal plants are still being built. And even if each nation meets all of their voluntary targets, global carbon dioxide emissions will still far exceed what is needed to keep temperatures under 2 degrees Celsius.

— More: The countries that ratified the Paris climate accord will meet at the end of the year to put the finishing touches on the global emissions rulebook. And they’ll do so with or without help from the United States. Patricia Espinosa, a career diplomat from Mexico who leads the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told Bloomberg News she hopes to address doubts the United States has about the commitments to the accord and hopes “there will be time for reconsideration. We certainly don’t want to see them depart from the Paris agreement.” She noted other countries don’t have “any appetite” to reopen negotiations, as Trump has suggested doing.

— Turbulent times ahead for air travel: "As the world warms and weather becomes more extreme," reports The Guardian, "aircraft designers, airport planners and pilots must all respond, both in the air and on the ground." One big problem: It's hard for aircrafts to achieve flight in very warm air, meaning climate change “could have severe consequences for aircraft take-off performance," according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

— Sunscreen solution: The chemicals found in sunscreens are “bigger than climate change” in how they affect coral reefs, the New York Times reports. So one company in the Turks and Caicos islands is playing its part by requiring visitors to use 100 percent biodegradable sunscreen during any snorkeling, kayaking or other activities.

Teen who started huge Oregon wildfire with a firecracker apologizes in court (Leah Sottile)


— A struggling newspaper vs. a struggling coal industry: West Virginia's premier newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, declared bankruptcy at the beginning of the year. The state's powerful coal industry, for years held to account by the feisty newspaper, celebrated the demise. Yet both industries are in financial turmoil, explains The Post's Steven Mufson. He writes: “over the past century, newspapers and coal mining companies have grown rich and now poor together, both victims of new technologies and broader changes in the economy."

World’s biggest miners emerge from their hole in a $200 billion comeback (Wall Street Journal)



  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology holds a hearing on a review of sexual harassment and misconduct in science.

Coming Up

  • The Center or Strategic and International Studies holds on “China’s Rapid Drive into New-Generation Cars” on Wednesday.
  • The Global America Business Institute discussion on FERC’s response to NOPR on Wednesday.
  • The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the National Association of Regional Councils hold a briefing on climate and weather risks to America’s coastal communities on Thursday.
  • The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee holds a meeting at the Commerce Department on Thursday

Watch clouds of steam and ash billow out of the erupting Mount Sinabung volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumatra:

Mount Sinabung erupted on Feb. 19, causing clouds of steam and ash to spread over the skies of North Sumatra, Indonesia. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)