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The Energy 202: Congress finally found a new way to fund wildfire suppression

with Paulina Firozi


Somewhere Smokey Bear is smiling.

Congressional leaders have reached a long-sought deal to fix the way the U.S. Forest Service pays for efforts to fight wildfires after blazes burned millions of acres of forest in the western United States in 2017, Darryl Fears and I report.

The agreement, reached as part of a broader spending package that passed the House Thursday and the Senate early Friday morning, would allow the agency to access billions of dollars in new disaster-relief funding when wildfires morph into monsters such as two fires last year outside San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In past fire seasons, the Forest Service was forced to borrow money from programs meant to prevent fires, manage forests and improve recreation to pay for more firefighters and equipment. 

Key members of both political parties agreed the practice of siphoning money from other Forest Service accounts, called “fire borrowing,” creates a vicious cycle that fueled even worse forest fires and needed to be addressed in the latest spending bill.

The deal was sparked in part by the past year's record-breaking wildfire season that captured the attention of the country — including, it seems, its lawmakers in Washington. The fires, coupled with the trio of major hurricanes that raged through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, made 2017 the most costly year on record for disasters in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Common sense has finally prevailed when it comes to how the Forest Service pays to fight record-breaking forest fires,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.

Environmentalists hailed the bill as a hard-fought triumph. “It’s possibly the most important bipartisan natural resources accomplishment in years,” said Collin O’Mara, head of the National Wildlife Federation. “These things don’t happen every day.”

The Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, under current law cannot access disaster relief funds set aside to address damage from hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters if it uses up the initial pot of money.

Now starting in 2020, firefighting agencies will be able to tap more than $2 billion in additional funding to put out extreme fires on top of the $1.4 billion allotted every year. The extra funding will go up $100 million every year, topping out at nearly $3 billion in 2027. 

But some environmental groups say these rule changes will enable more logging on public lands.

“We’re very grateful to Democrats for keeping many of the worst riders out of this bill. Unfortunately, there are still some pretty nasty provisions in there for the environment,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

For example, the spending bill allows the Forest Service to clear underbrush and small trees — fuel for forest fires during dry years — on plots of land smaller than 3,000 acres without having to go through a lengthy environmental review.

The bill also reverses a controversial U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruling that halted a logging project in Montana over concerns about its potential impact on the endangered Canada lynx. Both the Obama administration and Montana’s congressional delegation had sought to overturn the decision, fearing it imperiled other logging projects.

Some lawmakers had to drop their regional forest concerns as western Republicans with constituents devastated by forest fires, including Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, both Republicans from Idaho, pressed congressional negotiators to include a fire-funding fix after failing to do so at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term.

Lawmakers went to work in 2017 to craft a number of proposals for potential wildfire management reforms so that next time a fire-borrowing fix didn't slip away. "The final package pulled together provisions from 10 or 11 different bills," O'Mara said.

One of those lawmakers, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), lamented that the bill did not give agencies even broader authority to thin trees on federal lands without the lengthy review required under the National Environmental Policy Act. His committee advanced a bill to do just that last year.

“The fire-funding fix slightly improves the Forest Service's flexibility, but the bill is not as aggressive as it should have been in restoring the health of our nation’s forests. The Democrats and the litigation activists who back them simply dropped the ball,” Bishop said.

Referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bishop added: “I am not looking forward to the Schumer fires of 2018.”

Overall, conservationists who often side with Democrats see the bill as a stand against President Trump. It rejects the president’s bid to cut National Park Service funding and environmental appropriations overall, said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Cooler heads seem to be prevailing at long last,” he said. “We welcome this bipartisan repudiation of the draconian spending cuts sought by President Trump.”


— While you were asleep: The Senate passed a sweeping $1.3 trillion spending bill and averted a government shutdown. What was the holdup? The legislation had been stalled for hours "partly because Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) objected to the renaming of a federal wilderness area after a deceased political rival," The Post's Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis report.

"Risch had been complaining behind the scenes, demanding that congressional leaders remove a provision in the bill naming the White Clouds Wilderness after former Democratic governor Cecil D. Andrus of Idaho, according to two congressional aides familiar with the dispute," they write. Andrus once called Risch a “mean, snarly little guy."

But Friday morning, Trump threatened to veto the bill: 

— McMaster out, Bolton in: Trump said Thursday that he was naming former ambassador John Bolton as his new national security adviser, replacing Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. The latest ouster elevates yet another critic of the Paris climate accord within the White House. Bolton told Breitbart News last year the landmark agreement was “an excellent thing to withdraw from" because, he thinks, it erodes national sovereignty.

Or as Bolton put it: "Even though it appears toothless in the near term, it sets a foundation that they hope to advance toward a greater multilateral global governance. Forget the environmental aspect for a minute — we could be talking about global cooling here, rather than global warming. The advocates of this treaty would propose the same kinds of structures because that’s their larger objective: the reduction of national sovereignty and the pooling of sovereignty as in their favorite institution, their paradigm of the world to come, the European Union."

— Temporary tariff exemptions: The Trump administration announced a temporary reprieve on steel and aluminum tariffs for some U.S. allies on Thursday. “The decision to exclude some of the United States’ closest trading partners from the import tariffs gave some breathing space to the U.S. allies as they sought to negotiate permanent exemptions  Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the European Union and South Korea are on the list, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer announced at a Senate hearing. Canada and Mexico already had been exempted,” The Post’s Michael Birnbaum reports.

— "The alternative is no good:" Energy Secretary Rick Perry suggested to lawmakers Thursday that if the United States doesn’t work with Saudi Arabia to develop civilian nuclear reactors, then countries such as China and Russia, which don’t have nuclear proliferation standards, may step in. When asked whether the United States was considering a nuclear technology-sharing agreement that would not block Saudi Arabia from enriching nuclear fuel, Perry said “it’s really important to look at each of these agreements not in a vacuum…I always remind people that the alternative is no good," Bloomberg News reported.

— Fast-tracking Trump’s agenda: Lobbyists in Washington want to use the North American Free Trade Agreement as a way to push forward a legislative agenda to make it easier for companies in the United States to build factories, move goods and export coal. Or as Bloomberg News reports: “Lobbyists and lawmakers behind the plan have drafted a Nafta chapter on competitiveness that lays out broad goals for making regulation more predictable, investing in infrastructure and streamlining permitting."

The trick? Treaties can be passed by simple-majority vote in the Senate, so all lobbyists have to do is convince negotiators to tuck that chapter into NAFTA. 


— "Decoupling" in doubt: Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy increased by 1.4 percent last year after remaining steady for three years, according to a new International Energy Agency report. That matters because the "failure of emissions to rise between 2014 and 2016," The Post's Chris Mooney writes, "had suggested to analysts that something may have finally changed in the global energy economy — a possible ‘decoupling’ of emissions growth from steady economic growth, thanks to the proliferation of renewables and increasing energy efficiency,” Now that hopeful theory is in doubt.

— Meanwhile, in San Francisco: Oil giant Chevron publicly accepted climate science and the human-driven contribution to the change. The Verge has a good rundown of the climate “tutorial” that took place in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge William Alsup on Wednesday. “Chevron accepts what the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has reached consensus on concerning science and climate change,” said Theodore Boutrous, who represents Chevron and leads the legal team for the five oil giants that are defendants in this lawsuit.

— That’s a lot of plastic: In the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, there are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic making up 79,000 tons of plastic debris. It takes up an area three times the size of France. And according to a new report, the area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is “increasing exponentially,” Mooney reports.

And here are two great longreads for your weekend:

— How a Houston suburb ended up in a reservoir: The New York Times has a stunning interactive on the homes that were built in large reservoirs in Houston, and which were majorly flooded once Hurricane Harvey hit. “No one wanted to tell the developers that you can’t develop because it’s in a reservoir,” said Charles Irvine, a lead lawyer in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government. “Everyone knew, but nobody wanted to do anything.” And this video from the Times checks in on homeowners in the area who, months after the storm, have to decide whether to leave or to rebuild.

— Harvey’s toxic impact: The toxic impact of Hurricane Harvey months after the storm slammed into the Texas coast is much worse than officials previously said, the Associated Press and Houston Chronicle reveal in a joint investigation. In the more than six months since the catastrophic storm hit the nation’s largest energy corridor, the report found “more than 100 Harvey-related toxic releases — on land, in water and in the air. Most were never publicized, and in the case of two of the biggest ones, the extent or potential toxicity of the releases was initially understated.”

Meanwhile, residents living near the Arkema chemical plant that was damaged and experienced explosions following the storm are wary of the long-term damage. Some told the AP they “still know very little about any potential health effects from the flood and fires. They don’t know what chemicals they’ve been exposed to — or about any threat from air they breathe or water they drink.”



  • Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas holds its annual POWER Conference on Energy Research and Policy.

Coming Up

  • The Center for American Progress and New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance hold the "New Jersey Environmental Justice and Climate Summit" on April 4. 

— Important bark ranger notice: For National Puppy Day this week, the Interior Department shared a post about programs that rely on dogs, including Cooper (pictured above), who works at Lake Mead National Recreation Area