In March 2016, the attorneys general of Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands, joined on stage by former vice president Al Gore, assembled in Manhattan to announced they would be investigating the nation's largest oil company.
The group was gathered by then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who months earlier announced an inquiry into whether ExxonMobil had misled investors about climate change.
“The scope of the problem we're facing,” Schneiderman said, “is massive, and it requires a multi-state effort." Following Schneiderman's lead, the two other prosecutors said they, too, would investigate ExxonMobil.
Months later, after Donald Trump's election, Schneiderman would lead an even larger multi-state effort with Democratic attorneys general to sue the Trump administration for its rollback of environmental regulations.
Now New York's top prosecutor is facing his own investigation.
Schneiderman resigned from office Monday night just hours after he was accused of physically and mentally abusing four women. The New Yorker reported on the startling, on-the-record allegations of two women who say Schneiderman choked and slapped them during romantic relationships, leading them to seek medical treatment. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said it has launched a probe into the alleged abuse.
With Schneiderman's fall, the coalition of state prosecutors challenging the Trump administration in court lost a high-profile advocate for preserving the energy and environmental policies of the Obama administration.
But New York, being the big blue state it is, will likely find an replacement just as liberal as Schneiderman.
His office has given no indication the course there is changing. Amy Spitalnick, press secretary for the Office of the New York Attorney General, told The Washington Post by email that there will be “no changes” on environmental litigation.
She added that “our work will continue without interruption.”
Under Schneiderman, New York sued the Trump administration about a dozen times over energy and environmental policy, targeting not just the Environmental Protection Agency but also the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the departments of Energy and the Interior.
Most recently, Schneiderman led 14 other attorneys general in suing the EPA for failing to issue regulations curbing the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and natural gas operations. New York has also sued the Interior Department for restarting coal mine leasing on public lands and the EPA for suspending an Obama-era clean water rule.
In total, New York has taken 55 legal actions, including filing amicus briefs and submitting comments, in opposition to Trump's environmental policies, a sum tied with California for the most of any state, according to data collected by New York University Law School's State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. The center, financed with a nearly $6 million grant from former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, helps coordinate efforts between progressive state attorneys general.
“I don't think it will make much difference in how the N.Y. AG's office will handle the case,” Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, wrote by email. "They haven't lost any of the lawyers who are working on the cases."
Even before Trump took office, Schneiderman launched an investigation into ExxonMobil's history of in-house climate work following investigative reports in InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times. The company has fought the release of documents to both New York and Massachusetts in court, arguing the inquires are violating its free-speech rights.
The next attorney general will be selected by a joint session of the New York State Assembly, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the New York Senate.
That upper chamber complicates matters. For years, Republicans held the state Senate because of a breakaway group of eight Democratic state senators who caucused with Republicans.
But last month, that coalition, called the Independent Democratic Conference, officially dissolved. However, one member, Sen. Simcha Felder, who is from a conservative Brooklyn district, remained with the GOP, giving the Republican caucus an ultra-narrow 32-to-31 majority in the chamber.
For now, the acting attorney general is Democrat Barbara Underwood, who was appointed New York's solicitor general in 2007. “Our office has never been stronger, and this extraordinarily talented, dedicated, and tireless team of public servants will ensure that our work continues without interruption,” Underwood said in a statement after Schneiderman's resignation.
And by November, New Yorkers will elect a new attorney general to serve a four-year term. Fueled by anger against Trump, the energized Democratic base may make it difficult for a Republican attorney general candidate to pull an upset win in a state Hillary Clinton carried by more than 22 points in 2016.
“As long as the Trump Administration continues to ignore the rule of law, roll back important environmental protections, and sell out our nation's public lands and offshore waters, progressive state attorneys general across the nation will continue to fight back and hold this administration accountable,” said David Hayes, director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center.
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— Blankenship sunk: The scandal-plagued former coal executive Don Blankenship conceded the GOP Senate primary in West Virginia on Tuesday night as Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the nomination.
“With Morrisey, [Republicans] are upbeat about their prospects of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III in a state President Trump won handily in 2016,” The Post's Sean Sullivan and Elise Viebeck write. “The defeat of Blankenship — who had launched racially charged attacks on the family of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — was considered a significant development on Tuesday evening, the first of several primary nights this month.”
The scene, via CBS News's Ed O'Keefe:
Blankenship says “I think it was President Trump” and his lack of support that upended the campaign. #WVSEN— Ed O'Keefe (@edokeefe) May 9, 2018
On Twitter, McConnell taunted Blankenship with an allusion to Netflix drug lord series "Narcos." In campaign ads, Blankenship bizarrely derided the Senate majority leader with the nickname "Cocaine Mitch:"
— Another day, another report that signals President Trump’s support for his embattled EPA administrator may be waning. Following a story published in the Atlantic last week that said a Pruitt press aide was looking to spread negative stories about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, White House officials found a new way to turn the president against Scott Pruitt, and the report “struck a chord” with Trump, CNN reports. "The ground has absolutely shifted," one source told CNN. "I think he's finding it tougher and tougher to defend all these allegations," another said.
— Trump's decision day on Iran: President Trump announced Tuesday the United States “will withdraw” from the international nuclear deal with Iran, ignoring pleas from European leaders. “The action makes good on Trump’s campaign pledge to undo an accord negotiated under his predecessor, President Barack Obama,” The Post’s Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung report. “Obama considered the agreement his signature foreign policy accomplishment, calling it the best way to head off the near-term threat of a nuclear armed Iran and a potential opening toward better relations with Tehran after more than three decades of enmity.”
The architects of the deal from the previous administration admonished Trump for withdrawing:
- Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz called the decision a “major strategic mistake:” “The Iran nuclear deal rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and imposed uniquely stringent monitoring and verification measures—the most important elements of which were permanent—to prevent the country from ever developing a bomb,” Moniz said in a statement. “The United States is now in violation of the terms of the deal without offering a credible alternative.”
- Former president Barack Obama called the move “misguided:” “The consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America’s credibility, and puts us at odds with the world’s major powers,” he wrote in a statement on his Facebook Page.
- Former vice president Joe Biden wrote that "[t]alk of a 'better deal' is an illusion:" "It took years of sanctions pressure, painstaking diplomacy, and the full support of the international community to achieve that goal. We have none of that in place today," he continued in his own statement, per the Hill.
— Oil watch: After cracking $70 per barrel for the first time in three years on Monday, oil prices initially fell on Tuesday, CNBC reported. But prices rose more than 3 percent by Wednesday, Reuters reports, “hitting 3-1/2-year highs.”
— Still in the dark: The new head of Puerto Rico’s embattled power authority told lawmakers Tuesday that about 98 percent of the electrical grid had been restored, but that tens of thousands remain without power just weeks ahead of the next hurricane season. “This is not good enough,” Walter Higgins told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "The grid did not withstand the hurricane… The grid has to do better and be restored faster."
Lawmakers addressed the May 18 deadline at which point federal authorities plan to withdraw from the U.S. territory. "I would imagine the thousands of Puerto Ricans without power would look at that date and say, wait you can't leave us," Committee chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said. Charles Alexander, director of contingency operations and homeland security headquarters at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responded that all options are being considered but the plan for May 18 was still in place.
— BLM gives Utah coal mine a boost: The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management granted a royalty reduction to Utah’s largest coal mine that will save the company up to $19 million, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. “The BLM decision, which represents a substantial loss of revenue that would otherwise go to local governments, cited ‘significant and unique adverse geologic conditions,’ but gave no further explanation of why such a generous reduction is warranted,” per the report. BLM quietly granted Sufco Mine the reduction on March 6.
— Corn wars: President Trump has agreed to make changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard, such as allowing exported ethanol to count toward the quotas required under the biofuels law, per Reuters. The move could “appease both Big Oil and Big Corn by cutting the refiners’ regulatory costs while propping up demand for corn.” The proposed changes follow months of fraught negotiations led, respectively, by GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.
The two senators had somewhat different reactions after the negotiations, with Cruz crowing and Grassley cautious:
Terrific final decision from @POTUS meeting: E15, year-round plus RINs for all exports. This is a WIN-WIN for everyone. More corn will be sold (good for farmers), plus lower RINs (saves blue-collar refinery jobs), plus more ethanol exports (good for America).— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 8, 2018
Had WH mtg on RFS/ethanol. No RIN cap & got E15 yr round. Need to see Perdue Pruitt plan. Devil in details— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) May 8, 2018
— Another day, another lawsuit: The Wilderness Society is filing a lawsuit on Wednesday to call on the Trump administration to release a series of reports that detail its plans for “energy dominance” on public lands. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges the Interior Department has been violating procedures when processing Freedom of Information Act requests. Environmental groups have filed a similar FOIA-related suit against the EPA.
— Hurricane warning: Two recent studies warn heat stored in the ocean may lead to disastrous rains — and that there’s an increasing trend showing hurricanes are becoming really strong really fast. “Storms that unload more rain and explosively intensify cause more destruction and suffering, as the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season painfully made clear,” The Post’s Jason Samenow writes. “The implication is that if climate change, driven by increasing greenhouse gases from human activity, increases the heat content of the ocean, storms passing over it will be able to draw ever more moisture that they can unload as rain.”
— Energy Department wants small coal to be a big deal: The department is calling on companies to provide input on potential development of small-scale coal-based power plants, which don’t currently exist. “These plants of the future are envisioned to be modular for lower cost, designed using advanced methods, small scale, highly efficient (greater than 40 percent efficiency), and able to load follow to meet the demands of an evolving electricity grid,” the department said in a statement announcing its request for information. The comment period on the request will continue until June 8.
— Meanwhile, natural gas continues to squeeze coal out of the electricity market: According to the latest report from the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration, natural gas is expected to end the year with 34 percent of the total electricity generation, compared with 29 percent from coal. Nuclear power generation is expected to be 20 percent for 2018, and non-hydropower renewable energy will provide more than 10 percent of the electricity generation.
— Car lobby steers away from Trump's fuel-efficiency rollback: The head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, one of the top automaker lobbying groups in the country, told lawmakers on Tuesday it is against the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze increases in fuel efficiency standards. “We support standards that increase year over year that also are consistent with marketplace realities,” Mitch Bainwol said in prepared remarks for the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, per The Hill. The Auto Alliance had been silent after The Post and other news outlets initially reported last month on the plan to freeze the standards.
— Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s Audi unit has halted deliveries of some of its car models after an internal review revealed irregularities in its emissions systems, the latest issue in the carmaker’s ongoing diesel scandal. In a Tuesday statement, the company said abnormalities affected 60,000 current A6 and A7 models with V-6 diesel motors worldwide, per Bloomberg News, adding no U.S. customers are affected.
— Paid protests for a power plant: At least four of the people at a public hearing to support Entergy's request to build a power plant in New Orleans East were paid actors, the New Orleans Advocate reports. One of the four actors, who joined others wearing bright orange shirts that read “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power” also said he recognized 10 to 15 others from the local film industry at the New Orleans City Council meeting last October, per the report. But the company says it didn’t pay any actors and said it will investigate to see if "anyone retained by the company has acted in any way inconsistent with these values,” per the Times-Picayune. "We will take swift and appropriate action if warranted,” the company added.
POST PROGRAMMING: On Thursday, The Post will gather government leaders and experts across the energy sector to discuss issues affecting the safety, security and future of the country’s energy infrastructure and electric grid, including Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Kevin J. McIntyre and two members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources — Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). Register here to attend. Sign up here for a live stream notification for the event.
- The Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of Tara Mac Lean Sweeney to serve as the assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Interior Department.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing on America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining holds an oversight hearing.
- The Environmental Law Institute holds an event on infrastructure review and permitting.
- The House Energy and Commerce Energy Subcommittee holds a hearing on “Examining the State of Electric Transmission Infrastructure” on Thursday.
- The Women’s Council on the Energy and the Environment holds an event on congressional priorities in 2018 and beyond on Thursday.
- The United States Energy Association holds an event on “An Advanced Approach to Coal Utilization” on Thursday.
— Footage from a dashcam shows lava from Hawaii’s Kilaueau volcano consuming a Ford Mustang: