Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

Republicans on Capitol Hill are offering a ready defense for those who would like to see the exit of embattled Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt: Critics are overstepping their bounds.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) continued to defend Pruitt even after a new memo surfaced showing the administrator's own agency doesn't think his extravagant security detail is warranted. 

The EPA yesterday dismissed the career agency staffer — Mario Caraballo, a deputy associate administrator in the EPA's Office of Homeland Security — who approved the leaked internal report undermining Pruitt’s claims about needing 24/7 security detail, Politico reported.

But instead of pointing fingers at the EPA or Pruitt, Barrasso instead took on the two Senate Democrats — committee member Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and ranking Democrat Tom Carper (Del.) — who sent him a letter revealing the EPA report casting doubt on Pruitt's security needs.

Whitehouse and Carper wrote the chairman urging an inquiry into Pruitt’s security spending.

Earlier Tuesday, Barrasso said in a statement he was “deeply troubled” by Democrats' letter — not by its content but by “members of the committee would publicly release law enforcement sensitive information regarding the safety and security of a cabinet member and his family.” Given that sensitivity of the information, Barrasso said, his committee “will not hold a hearing on this issue.”

And later, in a brief interview with The Washington Post, the Senate Republican emphasized: “It’s terribly troubling what has been put out."

On other issues related to Pruitt, Barrasso added: “We’re waiting for the White House… we’re waiting for that formal review on so many of the questions that have been raised.”

The Feb. 14 memorandum cited by Senate Democrats and authored by the EPA’s Office of Homeland Security Intelligence Team concluded, in bold and underlined print, that a previous Oct. 17 memo outlining threats against Pruitt “DOES NOT employ sound analysis or articulate relevant ‘threat specific’ information appropriate to draw any resource or level of threat conclusions regarding the protection posture for the Administrator.”

The memo went on: "“[u]sing all source intelligence resources, EPA Intelligence has not identified any specific credible direct threat to the EPA Administrator.”

In a letter to Barrasso, Whitehouse and Carper questioned the justification underpinning the round-the-clock security detail the EPA has assigned Pruitt due to threats the agency says have been made against President Trump’s top environmental law enforcer.

Barrasso's focus on the leaks, and not the underlying allegations, has been a bit of a pattern for Trump officials as they seek to parry a barrage of negative stories about them (a senior White House official recently said leaking briefing materials was a "fireable offense."). It also gives other Republicans a way to defend Pruitt as the ethical allegations swirl around him.

The previous chairman of the Environment Committee, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), took his defense of Pruitt a step further, saying he did not even think the White House review was necessary. 

"Everything they accuse him of was cleared with ethics before it happened, and the same people who did and continue to hate Trump did and continue to hate Scott Pruitt,” Inhofe said. “And they’re not going to let up.”

In reality, for at least one of Pruitt’s scrutinized actions — the $50-per-night rental of a Capitol Hill condo from an energy lobbyist’s wife — EPA ethics officials signed off on the lease after Pruitt had moved out. The EPA’s lead ethics official later said he lacked important facts when he concluded that Pruitt’s rental lease did not violate federal gift rules. .

Other senators who, like Inhofe, voted to confirm Pruitt were less defensive on Tuesday of his potential ethical transgressions.

“Scott Pruitt is somebody whose policies have been beneficial to North Dakota," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), one of two Senate Democrat who voted for Pruitt.

But when asked about his scandals, she added: “Well, that’s not good. I will tell you that.”

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who urged Pruitt to “stop leading with your chin”over the weekend, reiterated his disappointment while back on Capitol Hill this week. 

“It needs to stop,” Kennedy told reporters. “I mean, I’m not going to try to defend it. This is taxpayer money he’s spending, and he needs to treat it like the precious commodity it is. I can support his policies without supporting his behavior. And his behavior, it’s out of line. He needs to apologize to every taxpayer in America.”

The Senate will soon vote to confirm the EPA’s deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who would be elevated to acting administrator if Pruitt left the agency. The nomination of Wheeler, an ex-coal lobbyist, last year engendered some of the harshest rebuke of Trump from environmentalists to date.

But given the burgeoning scandals about the current EPA administrator, Senate Democrats suggested they would keep the focus on Pruitt.

“We’ll spend time certainly talking about [Wheeler] but we’ll spend a lot of time talking about mistakes and maybe the misdeeds of Scott Pruitt,” Carper told reporters Tuesday. “It’s given us a lot to talk about, and we plan to use that time effectively.”

POWER PLAYS

— If Pruitt wasn’t Pruitt: Any other EPA employee would likely face some kind of punishment for the administrator's alleged transgressions. "The agency’s guidelines for infractions contain no specific entry for renting a Capitol Hill bedroom from a lobbyist for $50 a night,"  Bloomberg News reports. "But they do state that ‘use of official authority or information for private gain’ and engaging in private business activities that ‘create the appearance of a conflict of interest’ are each firing offenses.”

— More EPA probes: The EPA's internal watchdog will review allegations that Samantha Dravis, one of Pruitt’s closest aides, did not show up for work for months after Carper brought Dravis to the office's attention. "After analyzing your request, we have decided to conduct the requested review," EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins wrote to Carper, per E&E News. Carper has said his office was told Dravis had not “performed her duties for much if not all of November 2017 to January 2018."

— Fact check: Was Pruitt’s condo rental at market rate? PolitiFact rated the claim from the agency that Pruitt’s $50-a-night deal for a Capitol Hill condo was “about market rate” as “Mostly False.” “A real estate professional familiar with rents in the neighborhood said the terms of the lease were unusually convenient for Pruitt,” per the report. “Our scan of current rents showed that the prices of two-bedroom apartments were higher than what he would have paid if he had stayed there every night for the entire six months.”

—Trump vs. California, Part Z: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit against the EPA on Tuesday for withdrawing the so-called "once in, always in" policy that imposed strict limits on air pollutants from sources considered “major” polluters. “Scott Pruitt wants to let major polluters off the hook," Becerra said in a statement. "That is unconscionable, and it is illegal.”

Meanwhile, the state's top air-quality regulator signaled a possible deal with the administration over auto emissions standards. “Federal agencies have yet to translate their disdain for regulations into concrete proposals to roll back Obama-era rules intended to curb tailpipe emissions, meaning there’s still a chance for a consensus to emerge, according to Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board,” Bloomberg News reports. Nichols said: "Reason could prevail… There’s a way to get to success, unless your goal is to roll over California and not allow us to have any standards."

— Another alleged FEMA failure: A new report from Senate Democrats has found the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded contracts in the aftermath of deadly hurricanes without properly vetting the bidders to determine whether they could complete the job, the Associated Press reports. The new report, from Democrats on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, “described failures by the Trump administration that prevented timely delivery of tarps and sheeting to hurricane victims after the summer’s storms” per the AP. The contracts are also under investigation by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.

THERMOMETER

— Climate change deniers are using polar bears to spread doubts about the threat of global warming: In a new article published in the journal BioScience, 14 researchers “argue that denialist blogs with wide followings are using the bears to spread misinformation about the causes and consequences of climate change,” according to the New York Times. Such blogs insist “polar bears are doing just fine" and that "[p]redictions about devastating declines in polar bear populations, they say, have failed to materialize." In reality, the bear's Arctic habitat is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, resulting in the loss of sea ice on which the bears depend for food.

OIL CHECK

— The whole energy enchilada: Murray Energy’s chief executive Bob Murray wants to own coal-fired power plants in addition to his mining company. Murray said at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Future of Energy Summit on Tuesday that as early as this year, an acquisition may happen that would allow his company to mine and transport coal to plants, and then generate power, reports Bloomberg. “It’s a new concept. If you control the fuel supply, you can price it how you want it,” he said.

— Ray of sunshine for solar energy: Despite concerns President Trump’s solar tariffs would cast a shadow over solar job growth, the solar industry is predicting employment may in fact be up this year. “The Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry group, had forecast before the January decision that 88,000 jobs would be lost or fail to materialize this year,” Bloomberg News reports. “But after Trump opted for four-year tariffs that decline annually, it revised its estimate to 23,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, meanwhile, has forecast that solar-photovoltaic installer will be the fastest-growing occupation of the decade to 2026, outpacing health care, information technology and other career tracks.”

Here are some other energy industry headlines: 

  • ExxonMobil is in conversation with Qatar over a potential deal that would involve the energy giant Qatar Petroleum investing in U.S. gas resources, reports the Wall Street Journal. Qatar, whose leader was scheduled to meet with President Trump on Tuesday, is looking to “broaden its investments outside the Middle East and curry favor with Washington amid an economic blockade from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies,” per the report. 
  • BP said Tuesday it will work with Tesla to build a battery storage project at a wind farm in South Dakota as part of expanded efforts in renewable energy, according to Reuters.
  • Devon Energy said Tuesday it plans to lay off about 9 percent of its staff, about 300 workers, to boost its stock price and streamline operations, Reuters reports. The layoffs are set to occur in the coming weeks.
DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy holds a book talk on “Renewables: The Politics of a Global Energy Transition.”
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations holds a hearing on an update on Puerto Rico’s electric infrastructure.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup.
  • The World Resources Institute and the National Geographic Society host an event on data, technology, media and human networks and natural resources.
  • The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing.

Coming Up

  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy on the department’s 2019 budget on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold an oversight hearing titled “The Benefits of the Navajo Generating Station to Local Economies” on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

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