THE LIGHTBULB

The Environmental Protection Agency has been pretty aggressive in responding to what it perceives as negative media coverage under President Trump.

In one instance last year, though, an EPA decision actually hit a newspaper in the pocketbook.

Last summer, the EPA cut off funding to the Bay Journal, a publication with a print circulation of 50,000 that has covered environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay for more than a quarter-century because of, the agency said at the time, a “shift in priorities."

Now after months of lobbying from lawmakers and environmentalists around the Chesapeake Bay, the EPA has decided to restore $325,000 in funding this year for the Bay Journal, Juliet Eilperin and I reported late Thursday.

“It’s been a big distraction,” said Karl Blankenship, editor of the Bay Journal. “It’s going to be nice to get this behind us.”

Here's how we got to this point: A Trump political appointee who started signing off on each EPA grant, public affairs official John Konkus, made the decision last August to cut off funding for the paper, which accounts for about a third of its budget.

Working with Democracy Forward, a left-leaning legal and policy shop founded last year in response to the Trump administration’s deregulation agenda, the Bay Journal appealed the decision. The paper argued the EPA had violated the terms of its cooperative agreement. Maryland’s two Democratic senators, Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, joined the fight by repeatedly pressing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt privately and publicly to reinstate the funds.

Last month, Van Hollen asked Pruitt whether “it was politics that killed the funding” during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

"The contract is under reconsideration, and we are taking steps to address it … and we will deal with it fairly," Pruitt replied.

Blankenship said he was “actually pleasantly surprised" at Cardin and Van Hollen's leadership on the issue. "I actually didn’t think that our grant would rise to that type of a level. I was actually frankly amazed.”

In a joint statement, Cardin and Van Hollen hailed the EPA move as a step toward restoring faith in the federal government’s ability to uphold its commitments.

“I was deeply troubled when the EPA announced its intent to revoke its commitment to the Bay Journal only one year into a five-year agreement,” Cardin said, “in part because of the dangerous precedent that such a move could set for important projects and programs nationwide. Our federal government must be a consistent, reliable partner if it is ever to be fully effective.”

Van Hollen said, “We made our concerns clear to … Pruitt, and I appreciate that he heard them.”

EPA is obligated under the Clean Air Act to publicize its efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and for years it has used the Bay Journal as a way of doing that. Last year, however, the publication began running articles criticizing the Trump administration for proposing deep cuts to the cleanup program. Nick DiPasquale, who retired as head of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program in January, has said that Konkus mentioned the critical coverage in a phone call focused on the Journal’s grant.

Asked to elaborate Thursday on the decision, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman pointed to Pruitt’s remarks during the Senate hearing in January.

Advocates for the environmental restoration of the Chesapeake Bay said they welcomed the news. “I get about half my information about the bay from the Bay Journal,” said Tom Pelton, who hosts a radio show on Baltimore’s WYPR about environmental issues in Maryland. “This is a victory for honest and good reporting.”

In the months after the EPA told the paper it would terminate the grant, the Bay Journal lost two reporters as the newspaper’s leaders began searching for alternative sources of revenue and considering ways of running the publication with less money.

But the Chesapeake Bay still faces an uncertain funding future. The amount of federal money available for restoring the bay after years of industrial and agricultural pollution remains in doubt. For two years in a row, the Trump administration has proposed drastically cutting funding to the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership between the federal government and states within the bay’s watershed.

Those cuts have not been implemented because Congress has kept the government operation at the same level it was funded in fiscal 2016. GOP leaders will have more discretion in the months ahead, now that the two parties have reached a budget deal and will return to the normal appropriations process.

“Certainly, the Bay Journal deserves to have its contract upheld,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But he added, “it’s a minor victory compared to the attempt to dismantle the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.”

POWER PLAYS

— Steel yourself for tariffs: President Trump announced punishing tariffs of 25 percent for foreign-made steel and 10 percent for aluminum on Thursday, despite objections from White House advisers and Republican leaders. “The president’s move, relying upon a little-used provision of U.S. trade law, is expected to trigger immediate legal challenges by U.S. trading partners at the World Trade Organization and invite retaliation against American exports,” The Post’s David Lynch and Damian Paletta report.

A slew of industry groups responded harshly to the new tariffs. “The actions taken today are inconsistent with the Administration’s goal of continuing the energy renaissance," said Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies that rely on steel for pipelines and other infrastructure. Earlier this month, a letter from 15 other trade associations — including everyone from American Gear Manufacturers Association to the Tube and Pipe Association — expressed concern over "the unintended and disastrous consequences" of new tariffs.

— Evolution is just a "theory:" According to radio interviews from 2005 unearthed by Politico, Pruitt dismissed evolution as an unproven theory. “There aren’t sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint,” he said. According to the radio archives, Pruitt also warned of a "judicial monarchy" and pushed for constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.

— More rollbacks announced: The EPA moved Thursday to rollback regulations on pollution from oil and gas operations, per the Associated Press. The Obama-era regulations governing leaks and emissions from oil and gas drilling targeted reducing the amount of methane and volatile organic compounds. Bill Wehrum, the agency’s powerful top air official, said in a statement the changes will “provide regulatory certainty to one of the largest sectors of the American economy and avoid unnecessary compliance costs to both covered entities and the states.”

The EPA also proposed changes to Obama-era safeguards to regulate coal ash waste in an effort to give states and utilities flexibility in how they dispose of potentially toxic substance, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report. “The proposal includes more than a dozen suggested changes regarding the way coal ash is stored at more than 400 coal-fired power plants around the country, namely that it would allow “alternative performance standards” for state and federally permitted facilities. The agency projected that the changes could save companies as much as $100 million in annual compliance costs if implemented.”

— Corn wars, cont’d: President Trump gathered with oil-and corn-state lawmakers for the third time in four days for a discussion over the Renewable Fuel Standard. And once again, no deal was made on how to move forward with the nation’s biofuel policies, Bloomberg News reports. “Trump has been trying to address complaints from refiners who say the U.S. biofuel mandate -- the Renewable Fuel Standard -- is too costly, without alienating another key constituency: corn farmers and ethanol producers who helped elect him president.”    

— Piped in propaganda: According to a new report from the House Science Committee, a Russian-backed propaganda group meddled in social media in an effort to disrupt the energy industry, influence energy policy in the United States and inflame the debate over climate change, The Post’s Craig Timberg and Tony Romm report. “The new report from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee includes previously unreleased social media posts that Russians created on such contentious political issues as the Dakota Access pipeline, government efforts to curb global warming and hydraulic fracturing.”

A statehouse vote was canceled, but Gov. Jay Inslee is making climate a central plank in his political platform, perhaps ahead of a 2020 presidential run.
New York Times
THERMOMETER

— A record storm in the Northeast:  This weekend, a powerful storm is expected to blast the Northeast with destructive coastal flooding, wind and heavy snow, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. The storm has the potential to upstage the “bomb cyclone” that hit New England in January. The National Weather Service is warning the conditions will be a “life or death situation along the coast” and Fritz writes the storm is “shaping up to be the most destructive nor’easter of the season, perhaps the most destructive in decades for some along the coast.”

— What lies beneath: Scientists published new research this week that addresses the question of potential dangers from the release of ancient carbon from “permafrost” soils. Old or ancient carbon, pulled from the atmosphere and stored in plants hundreds or thousands of years ago, are being released again as the Arctic thaws, but “scientists are still debating just how much old carbon Arctic soils should release normally even without climate change, leaving the ultimate significance of the findings unclear,” The Post’s Chris Mooney reports.

— The next generation of weather satellites: The GOES-S, the latest in the fleet of weather satellites from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, launched successfully on Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The GOES-S is a copy of the GOES-R that launched in 2016, Brian McNoldy explains for The Post, adding the pair will bring an “unprecedented” view of the weather: “Like GOES-R, the new satellite is superior in the resolution it provides, compared with the previous generation of GOES satellites. Both versions also include a lightning mapper to allow for continuous monitoring — tremendously helpful in severe weather and tropical cyclone forecasting. This data has never before been available to forecasters.” The new fleet of satellites had been useful in tracking the major hurricanes and wildfires of 2017.

OIL CHECK

— Solar exemption sought: A California-based company, Enphase Energy, is looking for an exemption from the Trump administration’s 30 percent solar tariff despite not making solar panels, Bloomberg News reports: “That’s because [Enphase] makes components in the U.S. called microinverters that convert energy produced by photovoltaic panels from direct to alternating current … That makes them subject to duties, and that’s why Enphase hired a lobbyist this month.”

— Harley-Davidson’s electric future: Harley-Davidson made an equity investment in Alta Motors, an electric vehicle company, in the hope that they could partner on plans for an electric bike, the Associated Press reports. Harley-Davidson announced in January its intention to produce an all-electric motorcycle within 18 months.

And here is a good longread for your weekend: 

— Rebuilding in risky areas: After the worst fire season in California history, state policymakers appear doomed to repeat the decisions that put homeowners at risk from the get-go, Bloomberg's Christopher Flavelle explains. “Driven by the demands of displaced residents, a housing shortage, and a thriving economy, local officials are issuing permits to rebuild without updating building codes. They’re even exempting residents from zoning rules so they can build bigger homes,” Flavelle writes. “State officials have proposed shielding people in fire-prone areas from increased insurance premiums — potentially at the expense of homeowners elsewhere in California — in an effort to encourage them to remain in areas certain to burn again.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The MIT 2018 Energy Conference begins.

Coming Up

  • The American Council on Renewable Energy holds its annual Renewable Energy Policy Forum on March 14. 
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Cherry blossom time: The National Park Service announced the peak bloom for Washington’s famed cherry trees will be between March 17 and March 20. This year’s green bud date ranks as the fifth-earliest in nearly three decades, The Post’s Allyson Chiu reports.