THE LIGHTBULB

Here is a reminder that Scott Pruitt, even as he grapples with various ethics controversies, is still charging forward with new policy at the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The EPA chief declared Monday that the burning of biomass -- such as trees -- for energy will be considered “carbon neutral” by the agency in many cases, Chris Mooney and I reported Monday evening.

Trees are largely composed of carbon. When burned, it becomes atmosphere-warming CO2. Ideally, as the trees grow back, they will pull carbon released by the previously burned wood back out of the atmosphere. So the agency is suggesting that burning trees, or wood chips, can be considered a renewable and sustainable source of electricity.

“Today’s announcement grants America’s foresters much-needed certainty and clarity with respect to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass,” Pruitt said at an event with forest industry leaders in Georgia.

But the notion that biomass is carbon neutral is contentious among scientists. They fear that once forests are cleared so that their wood can be used for energy, they may not grow back as planned.

“Like so much else from Pruitt and the Trump administration, this defies science and is bad for our environment,” said Sami Yassa, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes burning wood for electricity. “It's really that simple.”

If the forests do grow back, why shouldn't we consider wood energy renewable? Consider these complications:

  • While carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of wood go into the air immediately, trees take decades or more to grow back. So if anything happens to interfere with their growth -- say, a forest fire -- the trees will not be there to remove the emissions. 
  • Wood products are often shipped long distances before they are burned — for instance, to Europe, which burns a great deal of wood for energy after the European Union declared wood pellets carbon neutral as well. The energy used for shipping adds to the total greenhouse gas emissions of the entire process.
  • Even if forests grow back completely, wildlife won't be able to live in its natural wooded habitat for decades.

The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board had not completed deliberations on the matter, and the agency’s policy memo released Monday acknowledged that the board had determined in 2012 that “it is not scientifically valid to assume that all biogenic feedstocks are carbon neutral." The board said any such determination requires further analysis.

William Schlesinger, president emeritus of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies and an EPA Science Advisory Board member, said Pruitt undercut the board — which had been “divided on this subject,” he said — by making this decision. “There would be no point in doing it now,” he said. “We’re supposed to provide analysis of the basis of decisions. He’s already made the decision. So what’s our role?”

Why does the forest products industry care? The designation of wood-burning energy as carbon neutral could make it easier for the industry to compete with fossil fuels and bolster calls for deregulating biomass carbon dioxide emissions, so that the industry is not subject to some provisions in the Clean Air Act.

“Recognizing that forest biomass in the U.S. provides a carbon-neutral source of renewable energy will encourage landowners to replant trees to keep our forests healthy and intact and provide good-paying jobs well into the future,” Dave Tenny, the founding chief executive of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, said in a statement.

Why do conservationists care? Should a new administration revive President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, or something like it to curb carbon emissions, this new policy means wood energy would be treated like solar and wind power — since in the EPA’s eyes all three are zero-carbon sources of electricity.

And Congress? Lawmakers, like Pruitt, appear to have sided with industry. On Monday, the EPA said it was spurred by the May 2017 spending deal that mandated the agency, along with the Energy and Agriculture departments, make sure their policies “reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest biomass.”

POWER PLAYS

— Dems raise “troubling” questions about Pruitt’s security moves: Five top Democrats sent a letter calling on House Oversight Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to hold hearings over new information about Pruitt’s security-related expenses.

In the letter, the Democrats cite documents that signal Pruitt’s office was not cleared for classified communications, which contradicts the department’s explanation for the installation of a $43,000 privacy booth. The letter also alleges security sweeps of the office were conducted without preapproval, and were done outside federal contracting norms. The letter was signed by Sens. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) along with Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) and Don Beyer (Va.)

Republicans are calling for hearings, too. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and John Boozman (Ark.).and Pruitt ally James M. Inhofe (Okla.) said they support hearings by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the administrator’s actions, per Politico. “I think that a couple of us on the committee think it’s appropriate to have a hearing in so far as any accusation having to do with his office is concerned,” Inhofe said.

Pruitt is heading to the Capitol this week. He is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment on Thursday morning and a House Appropriations subcommittee in the afternoon.

The hearings are ostensibly about the EPA's budget, but he'll likely have to answer some questions about his spending and management issues. Many of the ethics lapses Pruitt is accused of — like granting high raises to favored aides and upping his security details — do concern EPA's finances. It’s the first time Pruitt will be before Congress since the barrage of recent reports.

— White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed her previous comments on the White House's ongoing support and review of Pruitt's actions. Her remarks suggest the president himself has not yet soured on the EPA chief, perhaps due to his efforts to roll back environmental regulations.

“We’re reviewing some of those allegations, however Administrator Pruitt has done a good job of implementing the President’s policies," Sanders said. She added, "However, the other things certainly are something we are monitoring and looking at and I’ll keep you posted.”

White House officials are warning Republican lawmakers and conservatives against defending PruittBloomberg News reports. It’s a “sign that administration support for the embattled EPA chief may be waning,” the report adds.

— Environmentalists are trying to reach the president: The group Friends of the Earth have released a new ad on "Fox & Friends," one of Trump's favorite news shows, highlighting Pruitt's condo deal with a lobbyist's wife and arguing that under Pruitt "the swamp is worse than ever."

— Back to EPA policy: After weeks of hinting at it in interviews with conservative media, Pruitt is expected to announce a new science policy Tuesday that will limit which studies the agency can take into consideration when writing regulations, The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. The new rule will allow the EPA to only consider science that makes its underlying data public.

Why? Conservatives want to limit the influence of what they call "secret science" in the name of transparency. House Science Committee Chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has long sought such a requirement through legislation, but bills failed to pass both chambers.

However, many scientists, along with their liberal allies in politics, worry such a standard for public health and environmental studies not currently required by peer-reviewed journals "would limit the information the EPA could take into account," Eilperin and Dennis write. Many researchers collect sensitive health information from subjects — in order to, say, determine if coal-plant pollution or agricultural chemicals are harming their health — on the promise to keep it confidential.

— Meanwhile, another policy gets struck down: A federal appeals court ruled the Trump administration cannot delay penalties for automakers that violate fuel efficiency standards. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not explain its reasoning, saying it would do so "in due course." Instead, it issued a one-page order vacating the delay set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on triple fines for automakers, per E&E News.

— Changing targets: Senate Democrats, who for the past several weeks have been preoccupied by Pruitt, began a series of speeches Monday evening targeting Charles and David Koch for their influence on Trump administration policies. The speeches, which will continue through Wednesday, come after Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Catherine Cortez-Masto (Nev.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) wrote a letter late last week to President Trump calling for documents that would explain the Kochs’ impact on the federal government. “Americans have a right to know if special interests are unduly influencing public policy decisions that have profound implications for public health, the environment, and the economy,” the senators wrote.

— Improving the weather system is a “top priority” for the Trump administration: In an interview with The Post’s Jason Samenow, Neil Jacobs, confirmed this year as a deputy to the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, detailed three areas — model code, observations, and computational resources — the agency is looking to address. “We need both better and more frequent observations, as well as the model code to assimilate these observations,” he said. Read the full Q&A with Jacobs here.

— Cuomo calls for plastic bag ban: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Monday introduced a bill that would ban plastic carryout bags at stores statewide by next year. His bill comes the same day his Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, marched on the state Capitol along with thousands of activists, calling on the governor to promote renewable energy efforts in the state and increasingly challenging Cuomo from the left on a host of issues, per the Democrat & Chronicle.

— Coal boss slips in poll: West Virginia Senate hopeful Don Blankenship is fading in the Republican primary in West Virginia, a new poll has found per Politico. The shift comes as the Republican establishment has targeted Blankenship, a former coal executive who spent a year in prison after a deadly mine explosion in 2010, to stop him from winning the party’s nomination. The poll — commissioned by GOPAC, which trains and promotes state Republican legislators — found Blankenship trailing at 12 percent while two of his GOP rivals garnered 24 percent and 20 percent of support.

— Still in hotels, seven months later: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already twice threatened to cut off temporary housing assistance for those displaced by Hurricane Maria. But on Friday, FEMA extended aid via the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program for 1,700 families in Puerto Rico until May 14, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Good people are not being put out on the street... But the fact that they're still in hotels seven months after the storm means we're doing something very wrong," Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told the LA Times.

THERMOMETER

— Climate gentrification on the coasts: The way the government responds to extreme weather is forcing lower-income people away from coastal, waterfront areas as hurricanes and floods disproportionately affect lower-cost homes. And those homes, Bloomberg News reports, are usually replaced with pricier accommodations in a move economists and activists are calling “climate gentrification.” Public housing may be replaced all together. And rebuilding after extreme weather is costly. Strict building requirements make construction expensive, flood insurance premiums go up, as do taxes as things like sea walls are built in an effort to boost protection. As a result, coastal areas “often become wealthier after a severe storm.”

— The health care industry’s climate contribution: The U.S. health care system is the 7th largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, according to an analysis from the Commonwealth Fund. “The environment shapes our health system as well: recent catastrophes have shown how climate change can adversely affect the health care system’s ability to meet patients’ needs,” per the report. “These links suggest that health care organizations have both an opportunity and an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and take action to prevent harm to patients that occurs during climate-related catastrophes.” The foundation calls on "private and nongovernmental sectors" to cut emissions.

— A dire climate scenario: A new oceanographic study seems to have confirmed one element of a dire prediction about climate change made two years ago: Melting Antarctic glaciers are freshening ocean water around them, which is preventing the process by which cold and salty ocean water sinks in the winter, Chris Mooney reports.

What does this mean? “[T]he melting of Antarctica’s glaciers appears to be triggering a ‘feedback’ loop in which that melting, through its effect on the oceans, triggers still more melting,” Mooney explains. “The melting water stratifies the ocean column, with cold fresh water trapped at the surface and warmer water sitting below. Then, the lower layer melts glaciers and creates still more melt water." And of course, seas rise and glaciers melt, too.

OIL CHECK

— Where to store billions of tons of carbon: One way to boost the carbon capture and storage industry would be to fit corn-ethanol refineries with carbon storing technologies, a new economic analysis suggests. The development of such technology “could potentially scramble the intense environmental politics of the ethanol issue,” Mooney reports. Ethanol is generated through a fermentation process that releases pure carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but one plant in Illinois is burying some of the carbon instead.

— Venezuela unravels: Two Chevron employees were arrested in Venezuela last week and could be charged with treason there for refusing to sign a contract with state-owned oil company PDVSA, Reuters reports. “The arrests, by national intelligence agents, marked the first at a Western oil firm in Venezuela and represent a dramatic escalation of growing tensions between PDVSA and foreign companies over control of supply contracts,” per the report.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the budget request for the U.S. Forest Service.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center holds a webcast on infrastructure and natural disasters.

Coming Up

  • The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers holds a 2018 Security Conference on Tuesday and Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on “The Weaponization of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Implications of Environmental Lawfare” on Wednesday.
  • Bloomberg Government and the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce will host discussions on Investing in a Sustainable Energy Future on Wednesday.
  • SAIS Energy, Resources and Environment Program holds an event on energy infrastructure on Wednesday.
  • The Center for Energy Science and Policy holds the second annual Mason Energy Symposium on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on offshore energy revenue sharing or gulf producing states on Thursday.
  • Scott Pruitt will testify on the EPA's 2019 budget request before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment on Thursday.
  • EPA chief Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Thursday.
  • The United States Energy Association holds an event on The Plains CO2 Reduction Partnership on Thursday.
  • The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation holds an event on “Closing the Innovation Gap in Grid-Scale Energy Storage” on Thursday.
  • The Center for New American Security holds an event on geopolitical risks and opportunities for lower oil price era on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs will hold a legislative hearing on various bills on Thursday.
  • Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a lunch and learn event on Friday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— If Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron can't agree on a climate deal to spare the planet from severe warming, they can at least work together to plant a tree: The U.S. and French presidents planted a photo op (and an oak tree) on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday. The sapling was a gift from Macron and French first lady Brigitte and comes from the site of the Battle of Belleau Wood, a historic World War I battleground that became part of U.S. Marine Corps legend.