Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

When Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt wanted to set up opposing teams to debate the science of climate change, his staff sought advice primarily from well-known climate doubters at conservative think tanks.

Those largely left out: Researchers, both inside and outside the agency, who study climate change for a living.

A new cache of emails show Pruitt’s schedulers, press aides and other political appointees collecting information from outside conservative advocates who have worked for years at the fringes of mainstream climate science in preparations for the “red team-blue team” exercise, I reported Wednesday. 

In interviews with news outlets, Pruitt had pitched the two-side, military-style exercise as a way to suss out the truth of scientific claims that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are pumping greenhouse gases into the air and are warming the planet. 

Yet multiple scientific assessments at home and abroad have concluded man-made climate change is real and poses substantial risk. Many within the climate science community countered that staging such an exercise was unnecessary because scientists have plenty of forums, such as academic journals and scientific conferences, where ideas are debated.

The emails were provided to The Post by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental nonprofit group that obtained them as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. The EPA declined to comment. Here are some highlights:

  • One message suggests career staff at the agency’s main scientific research arm had little to do with its development. “The red team blue team exercise is not an ORD effort, and we are not involved,” Samantha Linkins, a staffer at the Office of Research and Development, wrote to other EPA staffers in response to an inquiry from Democrats on the House Science Committee. “The Administrator is the one who wants to do this and I’m guessing his folks are putting it together.”
     
  • Elsewhere behind the scenes, Rupert Darwall, author of the book “Green Tyranny,” forwarded to Pruitt’s staff an unreleased Competitive Enterprise Institute paper he wrote that echoed that idea  titled “A Veneer of Certainty Stoking Climate Alarm.” Darwall told the EPA chief’s aides that the essay is “best go-to justification for Administrator Pruitt’s red/blue team appraisal.”
     
  • Agency staffers also corresponded with a pair of Ivy League professors, J. Scott Armstrong at the University of Pennsylvania and William Happer at Princeton, who have both publicly questioned whether policymakers should be concerned about human-caused global warming despite holding professorships outside climate science.
     
  • Pruitt’s Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson appeared to be working with Happer to vet potential red-team members who would challenge climate science in the exercise. “I am sorry that distractions prevented me for getting this material about potential red team members to you,” Happer wrote to Jackson in a Nov. 2017 email. “Please keep it confidential.”
     
  • Separately, Armstrong sent a paper he co-wrote to EPA staffers that argued Pruitt should impanel a group of judges to decide whether climate regulation would provide a “substantial net benefit … beyond reasonable doubt.”
     
  • Pruitt even conferred with a senior Roman Catholic prelate, who once in a speech called “hysteric and extreme claims about global warming … a symptom of pagan emptiness.” During a dinner in Italy last June, Pruitt and Cardinal George Pell discussed an April 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed by New York University professor Steven Koonin, which had first brought the red team-blue team idea to prominence in Washington, one email exchange showed.
     
  • The following month, in July, the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked for a meeting with Pruitt to discuss the red team-blue team proposal. The newly released emails show Jackson and other political staffers considered the request from the AAAS, the largest general scientific society in the United States. But the scientific society told The Post the meeting never came to fruition. “We did not hear back from EPA in response to that letter and have not met with the administrator or EPA staff on this matter,” said Joanne Padrón Carney, AAAS’s director of government relations.

After months of back-and-forth with conservative advocates, the White House ultimately stopped the plan. Yet even after White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly made it clear to the EPA in December that it should not move forward with the debate, Pruitt’s staff was coordinating having Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, make a presentation to Pruitt touching on the red team-blue team idea.

“I expect generally that the objective is to discuss the opportunity to examine emissions baselines and economic analyses of climate change in the context of a red-team/blue-team exercise,” Cass asked Pruitt’s aides. “Is that right?”

Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, associate administrator of the Office of Public Engagement and Environmental Education, seemed hesitant. “We were thinking this meeting could be purely informative in nature, and not necessarily in the context of a specific EPA exercise,” she responded.

OIL CHECK

— California to require solar panels on all new homes: The California Energy Commission voted 5 to 0 to approve a building code change that will require solar power for newly built single-family homes. The mandate, the first of its kind in the United States, will take effect in 2020.

  • The downside: Such a move would add $8,000 to $12,000 to the cost of each new house, per the New York Times, which notes the construction industry is prepared to live with the requirement.
  • The upside: Solar power will help homeowners keep their electricity bills down. “The commission put average total utility savings at $19,000 in today's dollars over a 30-year period, taking inflation into account,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

Even without this rule, California is already a leader for solar capacity. By the end of 2017, solar power accounted for almost 16 percent of the state’s electricity.

— Trump’s Iran decision fallout: Following President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, global buyers of Iran’s oil supply are scrambling to secure other oil sources, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter and leader in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, said overnight it would “work with major producers and consumers within and outside OPEC to mitigate the effects of any supply shortages,” according to the state-run Saudi news agency, citing an official statement.

But “oil traders weren’t convinced,” Mufson reports. “Crude oil prices climbed up on Wednesday morning with the benchmark West Texas Intermediate grade up $2.01 to $71.07 a barrel for June delivery.”

— Awkward auto meeting: Trump is set to meet with top executives from major automakers to convince them to support the administration’s proposal to roll back fuel economy requirements, the New York Times reports. Usually such lobbying for softer rules goes the other way around. The meeting follows testimony from Mitch Bainwol, head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, who called on the Trump administration “to find a solution that continues to increase fuel efficiency standards.”

POWER PLAYS

— Pruitt watch: The EPA chief received a vote of confidence from a White House official on Wednesday, which happened to be his 50th birthday. Amid ongoing reports that Trump's support for Pruitt himself is waning, here’s what White House legislative director Marc Short said via The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Erica Werner:

— Meanwhile, MSNBC has admonished host Hugh Hewitt following reports he lobbied Pruitt to clean up a Superfund site near his California home. Hewitt “was given a verbal warning as such activity is a violation of our standards,” an MSNBC spokesman said in a statement, according to CNN.

Politico first reported Pruitt fast-tracked a cleanup of a toxic waste site after Hewitt brokered a meeting between Pruitt and lawyers for the Orange County Water District. Hewitt, who also a contributing columnist for The Post, agreed as well not to write about Pruitt for the newspaper going forward.

— Drip... According to EPA emails obtained and released by the Sierra Club, longtime donors to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue brokered a meeting last July with Perdue and Pruitt ahead of a policy change that could end up benefiting them, E&E News reports. After meeting last July at an event in Georgia with Earl and Wanda Barrs, who run a tree farm, Pruitt returned to the state last month to announce a policy that converting trees and biomass into fuel will be considered “carbon neutral.”

…drip: The EPA’s inspector general last year complained that Pruitt’s top aides were delaying handing over documents related to reviews of Pruitt’s travel habits, Politico reports, citing newly released emails. “That standoff between the EPA inspector general's office and Pruitt's team was resolved a month after the IG's staff flagged the issue and warned that the reticence to release the documents came close to impeding their probe, the emails show,” per Politico. The travel probe is just one of several reviews the IG is taking of Pruitt's actions.

— Pruitt resumes courting industry: Pruitt met Wednesday with industry representatives from the National Mining Association and the Association of American Railroads as part of the second session of the EPA's "newly revived ‘Smart Sectors’ program, designed to formally solicit the input of the industries the agency regulates,” Bloomberg News reports.

— A Cold War strategy to keep coal and nuclear plants hot: Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Wednesday his department is “looking very closely” at using a 68-year-old law to bolster struggling coal and nuclear plants. “It’s about the national security of our country,” Perry told lawmakers on the House Science Committee.

Perry is turning to the 1950 Defense Production Act after an earlier proposal to provide extra compensation to coal and nuclear power plants was rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But leaning on that Cold War-era law is likely to draw challenges in court.

— Trump team quietly cancels NASA carbon research: The Trump administration halted NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, which measures carbon dioxide and methane through satellite and aircraft instruments, Science magazine reports. Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of Tufts University's Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, called it a “grave mistake.”

The decision is one of the first major swipes at NASA's climate work under Trump, coming shortly after Jim Bridenstine was sworn as the space agency administrator last month.

THERMOMETER

— Precipitation whiplash and climate change threaten California’s freshwater: About two-thirds of freshwater in California originates in the Sierra Nevada, but that availability shrinks during drought years. A wonderful graphic from The Post’s Lauren Tierney and Monica Ulmanu details how the source of water may be in trouble. “Researchers fear global warming will cause the Sierra Nevada snowpack to lose much of its freshwater by the end of the century, spelling trouble for water management throughout the state,” they write.

DAYBOOK

POST PROGRAMMING: Today, 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.

Today

  • The House Energy and Commerce Energy Subcommittee holds a hearing on “Examining the State of Electric Transmission Infrastructure.”
  • The Women’s Council on the Energy and the Environment holds an event on congressional priorities. in 2018 and beyond.
  • The United States Energy Association holds an event on “An Advanced Approach to Coal Utilization."
  • Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) will speak at the Climb The Hill Senate reception on preserving outdoor recreation opportunities. 
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Perhaps a not-so welcome birthday present for Pruitt: