THE LIGHTBULB

Scott Pruitt made a head-turning statement Wednesday: He praised the country's reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Why is that surprising? Because the Environmental Protection Agency chief has, quite controversially, not conceded the reality of climate change.

The EPA, in its annual report on the amount of greenhouse gases released nationwide, found U.S. emissions overall fell from 6.64 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015 to 6.51 billion in 2016 — a 2 percent drop. Since the height of domestic greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, that total has fallen more than 11 percent.

Pruitt, in his tweet responding to the report, attributed the drop to "tech breakthroughs" and took a swipe at the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era plan to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector that the Trump team is attempting to unravel.  The CPP had yet to take effect, meaning the country never saw what impact, if any, it would have on carbon emissions.

Pruitt elaborated in a statement. “This report confirms the President’s critics are wrong again: one-size-fits-all regulations like the Clean Power Plan or misguided international agreements like the Paris Accord are not the solution,” Pruitt said.

Here's what the report really shows: The report, done every year since 1990 as required by a U.N. treaty, indicates emissions went down in 2016 because of a particularly warm winter. More broadly, emissions went down because of natural gas-fired power plants replacing coal generators. In 2016, natural gas surpassed coal as the nation's leading source of electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Indeed, the glut of cheap natural gas in the United States and elsewhere is the result of breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing over the past decade. Much of the early research for that extraction technique was paid for by the Energy Department's Office of Fossil Energy — whose budget, ironically, the Trump administration proposed slashing two years in a row.

Also left unmentioned by Pruitt are innovations lowering the cost of wind and solar power production, which are eating into coal's share of the electricity market — though each still represent a faction of the power that natural gas generates.

Also, if the natural gas boom is good for reducing carbon emissions, it is terrible for President Trump's oft-touted goal of bringing back coal.

But a reduction in emissions was arguably never really an aim for Trump, who has derided climate change as a hoax. And Pruitt, who once asked whether global warming "necessarily is a bad thing,” is like the president a strident skeptic of the consensus among climate scientists that humans are warming the planet.

Will Trump get any credit for reducing the emissions anyway? Not from this. The report tabulates only greenhouse gases released up until the end of 2016 — a month before the president took office. So none of the Trump team's policies would have had any impact. 

POWER PLAYS

— More than 170 lawmakers tell Pruitt to resign. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) introduced a “sense of Congress” resolution on Wednesday calling for the EPA chief’s ouster. The resolution was co-sponsored by 39 other senators and 131 other representatives and notes the lawmakers are expressing “no confidence" in the administrator and called for his "immediate resignation." 

But the resolution is “not likely to go anywhere without Republican support, which it lacks,” the New York Times notes, adding "it highlights the pressure Mr. Pruitt already faces from nine investigations — by Congress, the White House and his own agency — into whether he misused taxpayer funding or violated other legal standards.”

— Speaking of the White House: Its budget director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers Wednesday he will investigate Pruitt’s spending habits, specifically noting the $43,000 soundproof booth installed in his office. “I'm not interested in covering for anybody else,” Mulvaney told members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government, per Politico. “I'm not any happier about it than you are.” 

Mulvaney’s comments follow House Oversight Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-S.C.) request to interview EPA aides and after Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called for more information about Pruitt’s use of multiple email addresses. But Politico reports “Republicans appeared divided about how intensely their party should be investigating the embattled EPA chief.”

“We need to look at this,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told Politico. “There shouldn’t be a reason why we shouldn’t look at this.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order Wednesday calling on the Bureau of Land and Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies “to develop plans within 90 days that focus on expanding recreational opportunities,” reports the Associated Press. Zinke said people are lucky to have “amazing public lands and waters to carry out our tradition of outdoor recreation,” but said it’s up to the department to create more opportunities to give people access to those sites.

— Strengthening cyber: Members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy approved four bills Wednesday that aim to secure energy infrastructure including cyber response and security of the nation’s grids and pipelines following a string of cyberattacks. “We have recently seen how vulnerable our society and internet are to foreign interference,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), a sponsor of two of the bills, per the Hill. “If an outside entity were to attack our electric grid, we could go dark without electricity for months.”

— Steyer stamp of approval: Billionaire Democratic donor and environmental activist Tom Steyer said he will endorse state Sen. Kevin de León over incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “I think he’s the kind of young progressive that reflects California and would be a very strong advocate for our state nationally,” Steyer said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I know him well, and he’s a friend. We share a lot of values," said Steyer, noting De León’s work on climate change. Steyer, who had previously considered running for Feinstein’s seat before he announced he wouldn’t run in January, added: “I have nothing bad to say about Dianne Feinstein. I have a lot of good to say about Kevin de León.”

— Failure to launch: After a 49-to-49 deadlock on Wednesday, the Senate voted to advance the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) to be NASA administrator, only after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) flipped his vote. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is recovering following cancer treatment in Arizona, and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who had a baby last week, were both absent from the vote. A final confirmation vote for Bridenstine could happen on Thursday.

Stepping back: Bridenstine was nominated for the space agency's top job all the way back in September, but for months had trouble securing the votes needed to become administrator due to having no background in science or in managing large organizations. The fact Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) finally brought Bridenstine's nomination to a floor vote means he thinks he finally has the votes to pass him. Using Vice President Pence as a tie-breaker, McConnell does. But Pence's trip to Mar-a-Lago during the procedural vote threw a wrench into those launch plans.

As for Flake flaking out: Flake didn’t say much after the vote about what happened, though he acknowledged he was negotiating for something, The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and Mike DeBonis report. “Just a few discussions,” Flake said when asked why he changed his vote. “We’ll see,” he said, noting it was “just a vote that stayed open a little longer than usual” because “some discussions needed extra time.”

NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell offered more context on Twitter:

— Coal boss looks to erase conviction: Attorneys for Senate hopeful and former Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship filed a motion Wednesday that seeks to erase his conviction in connection with a deadly 2010 mining disaster. The motion claims prosecutors withheld information that would have assisted in the coal baron’s defense, according to the Associated Press. Blankenship, who served one year in prison and was released in 2017, has maintained that he did not get a fair trial.

Meanwhile, Politico reports Senate Republicans are upping their attacks on Blankenship, “increasingly worried that the coal baron and ex-prisoner will blow a winnable race against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. “Wasn’t he convicted of a crime?” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told Politico. “That sort of background doesn’t lend itself to public office, in my view."

— Bill shipwrecked: The Senate voted on Wednesday to block a measure that would have loosened rules on ships in the Great Lakes dumping ballast water, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. The chamber voted 56 to 42 to advance the Coast Guard Authorization Act, which included a version of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, leaving the bill four votes shy of the 60 needed to move to a final vote.

— In the dark, again: Puerto Rico was hit with an island-wide power outage almost seven months after Hurricane Maria destroyed the electrical grid. It’s also the first time since the storm that the entire island experienced a blackout. Officials said Wednesday it could take up to 24 to 36 hours to fully restore power, and CNN reports the island’s utility said restoration priority will be given to hospitals, water pumping systems, banks and San Juan’s airport. This latest outage comes less than a week after a fallen tree caused a blackout for nearly 900,000 customers.

What happened this time? The Post’s Arelis R. Hernandez reports “workers for Cobra Energy were moving a tower near Aguirre, one of the island’s major generating plants, when an excavator struck a major distribution line, causing a change in voltage that created a chain reaction.” Before the outage Wednesday, there were still about 40,000 customers who had not had their normal electricity restored following the hurricane.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz:

THERMOMETER

— Barrage on the Great Barrier Reef: According to a new study, 30 percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals were damaged in 2016 alone, and another 20 percent were lost in 2017. “Two years after a long-lasting undersea heat wave scalded large sections of the Great Barrier Reef, scientists have found that because so many corals died, much of the reef has probably been altered ‘forever,’” The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. “Many corals died faster than expected and at a lower level of sustained heat than had been predicted to be deadly.”

— Americans waste about a quarter of all the food they buy: A new study has found the environmental impact of food waste, which involves 30 million acres of cropland, 4.2 trillion gallons of water and 2 billion pounds of fertilizer, is “tremendous," writes Mooney. "The study… did not calculate the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. But prior research has suggested wasted food, like all food production, also contributes to the warming of the planet, because agriculture is a key source of the fast-warming gases methane and nitrous oxide," he adds.

OIL CHECK

— Winding up: Four states — Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota — generate at least 30 percent of their annual electricity from wind, according to the American Wind Energy Association’s annual report. Some other highlights from the report, according to Axios: Wind supplied a record 6.3 percent of power in 2017, and last year, wind power capacity additions in the country totaled just over 7,000 megawatts, which is about a 9 percent growth.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a webinar.
  • The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies holds an event on the environmental risks of oil and gas retrieval.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on rural energy challenges and opportunities.
  • Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy’s annual energy summit.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a hearing.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— All systems go: NASA's Tess spacecraft launched on Wednesday on a mission to scan the sky for at least two years on a search to find any new planets, per the AP.