The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Wilbur Ross declined to endorse his own department's climate science findings

with Paulina Firozi


Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declined to defend the work of climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), noting the agency's numerous reports on global warming have been reviewed less favorably by some critics.

During a talk at the National Press Club on Monday, Ross was asked by an audience member whether he accepts “NOAA findings that humans are the primary drivers of climate change.” NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department. 

Ross started his response by saying, “I'm not going to get into the climate debate.”

Then he dove in: “Commerce Department's NOAA has issued various reports that reflect the thinking of their scientists, and those reports in general have been reviewed, sometimes favorably, sometimes less so by other people in that field. So I think I'll just let that record speak for itself.” A Commerce Department spokesperson declined to comment further.

Ross, before he took office, promised not to obstruct climate research under his purview. But by declining to endorse the research his department produced, Ross seemed to be pulling a page from the playbook of other Trump officials at departments such as the Environment Protection Agency who are aggressively trying to dismantle the Obama administration's policies. 

The comment swiftly drew rebuke from a science group that accused the Commerce chief of being overly political.  

“The secretary of commerce should be unequivocally supportive of the climate scientists, and the climate science happening under his watch,” said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The only people who are making unfavorable comments,” he added, “are political leaders and their allies in the Republican Party."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, weighed in too: "The vast majority of science done at NOAA, NASA, and universities is crystal clear: if we want a prosperous future, we must address climate change and sea level rise now," he said in a statement. "The only real debate left is how best to address it.  Are we going to rise to the challenge and protect our communities, spur the jobs of tomorrow and stop the damage?  Or will we continue to ignore the oncoming threat?  For Florida, there is too much at stake and the sooner we act, the better."

Republicans on the House Science Committee are among the harsh critics of NOAA's climate science. That panel's chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), has repeatedly accused NOAA climate scientists of falsifying data to generate "politically correct results." Smith even went so far as to subpoena President Barack Obama's NOAA head, Kathryn Sullivan. 

While Ross has not been unequivocally supportive of NOAA's climate science, he hasn't been really tried to obstruct it either. During Donald Trump's presidency, climate scientists at NOAA and NASA, the other science agency primarily responsible for studying the warming of Earth's atmosphere, have carried on climate research with little apparent interference.

In December, for example, numerous NOAA scientists contributed to a sprawling report on the links between climate change and extreme weather events, such as heat waves in Alaska and droughts in Africa. That same month, NOAA's acting administrator, Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, declared findings about unprecedented warming in the Arctic “directly relate to the priorities of this administration” when it comes to national and economic security.

By contrast, leaders at the EPA and the Interior Department have sought to interfere with the publication of climate science by forbidding federal researchers from presenting on climate change at a conference and directing language about climate change be removed from a news release on a sea-level-rise study.

Yet there have been times when the Commerce Department's record at facilitating scientific discussion has raised questions. Ross allowed the 15-person Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment, which works to translate the findings of the National Climate Assessment to a broad audience, to expire in August. My colleague Juliet Eilperin reported Tuesday that Trump officials faulted climate panel for having only "one member from industry," citing emails released under the Freedom of Information Act to the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. 

Still, Ross has said he is unwilling to disrupt the dissemination of science. “If confirmed, I intend to see that the Department provides the public with as much factual and accurate data as we have available,” Ross wrote in response to a letter Nelson sent last year regarding climate science. “It is public tax dollars that support the Department’s scientific research, and barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public.”

One reason for the more hands-off approach is that, unlike the EPA and the Interior Department, NOAA merely studies climate change — it does not set regulations trying to address its causes or effects.

Another may just be that NOAA still lacks a permanent leader, even though Trump has been president for 16 months.

Last October, the president nominated Barry Myers, chief executive of the private forecasting firm AccuWeather, to head NOAA. But his nomination may be still gummed up after three former NOAA administrators voiced serious concerns about the businessman, who has tried to persuade Congress to curb free services from NOAA’s National Weather Service that overlap with products sold by AccuWeather.


— A senior GOP senator may ask Scott Pruitt to quit, but not for the reason you might think: Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley threatened to ask EPA chief Scott Pruitt to resign if he did not address the way large refineries acquire waivers exempting them from the nation’s biofuel regulations. On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Grassley said that if the EPA did not follow through on federal ethanol mandates that he would “be calling for Pruitt to resign because I’m done playing around with this,” per the Associated Press.

Grassley expanded on his threats on Twitter:

Meanwhile, the EPA is planning to ask for input on whether to increase the overall transparency of the biofuel-credit market, Bloomberg News reports. The agency will seek public comment as part of a review of proposed biofuel quotes for 2018 being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget.

— The EPA just became a little more like Toyota, as my colleague Juliet Eilperin explains: On Monday the agency announced that it had created the “Office of Continuous Improvement,” which will apply the Lean Management System to track EPA’s performance in an effort to enhance efficiency. The method, pioneered at Toyota, scrutinizes each step of a manufacturing or decision-making process, in an effort to make it more efficient.
At an event at EPA headquarters, Pruitt lauded the change, saying that the agency is now tracking how long it takes to issue permits. It plans to cut the time to issue permits to six months, he said. “We are tracking those things now,” said Pruitt, who did not take questions from supporters. “That is a dramatic improvement from where we’ve been in recent years.” 

Serena Mcllwain, a 30-year veteran of the federal government who worked in EPA Region 9 before moving to headquarters, will head the new office.
Henry Darwin, EPA’s chief operating officer, told reporters that Pruitt’s predecessor Gina McCarthy also embraced the idea of Lean Management, but applied it to a discrete number of projects in each office. Darwin said the idea is to deliver better performance for “customers”—those regulated by the agency—as well as “taxpayer-investors.” Darwin said that it would strike “a balance between our customers and our taxpayer-investors,” adding that taxpayers expect “clean air, clean water, clean land and safe chemicals.”

— Get your popcorn ready: Pruitt will testify Wednesday on the agency’s budget before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. The office of the top Democrat on that panel, Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), made it clear in an email this week he will question Pruitt on "his spending and ethics issues," along with the 2019 budget.

But Democrats on the main Senate oversight panel for the EPA — the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — still have not had a crack at questioning the EPA administrator about his spending and personnel decisions. “Administrator Pruitt’s testimony, viewed in the most charitable light, depicted a chief executive who has failed to exert any oversight over his staff as they have, as he testified, spent exorbitant funds and made impactful personnel decisions without his knowledge or approval,” Democrats wrote in a letter to committee chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) when asking for a hearing.

— Make it a dozen: The EPA’s watchdog announced a new probe on Tuesday to review Pruitt’s use of nonpublic email accounts, the now 12th federal investigation into the administrator. “Specifically, the inspector general said it would look into whether Pruitt is properly preserving email records as required under federal law and whether the agency is properly searching all of his accounts in response to public records requests,” Politico reports. Democratic Sens. Tom Carper (Del.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) confirmed the investigation in a letter.

— Budget bullet dodged: The Interior Department and the EPA will avoid the steep budget cuts initially proposed by Trump based on the spending bill released by House appropriators this week. The spending bill proposes a $100 million cut for the EPA, bringing its 2018 budget of $8.05 billion to $7.95 billion for 2019, compared to Trump’s proposed $6.15 billion, according to E&E News. For the Interior Department, the measure proposed a $13.1 billion budget for 2019, which is about the same as what lawmakers gave the department in 2018 — and up from the $11.7 billion recommended by Trump.


— Pipeline halted: A federal appeals court ordered late Tuesday a halt of construction of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had inadequately set limits for the impact on threatened or endangered species, The Post’s Gregory S. Schneider reports. “It’s foolish and shortsighted to risk losing rare species for an unnecessary and costly pipeline boondoggle,” attorney D.J. Gerken, who represents Southern Environmental Law Center who brought the case against the pipeline, said in an email. A Dominion spokeswoman said the ruling affects only parts of the route and that the pipeline “will continue to move forward with construction as scheduled.”

— One in four nuclear plants at risk of early closure: More than a fourth of the nuclear power plants in the country don’t make enough money to manage the cost of operations and may be at risk of early retirement, Bloomberg News reports: “Of the 66 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S., 24 are either scheduled to close or probably won’t make money through 2021, according Nicholas Steckler, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.”

— And nearly a fourth of coal-fired plants in the country don’t have control technology that helps limit sulfur dioxide emissions, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity. That’s because under a 1977 law, plants built before 1978 were able to avoid installing the necessary but costly technology. Environmental advocates argue the 1977 loophole "has been misused, letting dirtier plants operate longer at the expense of public health,” per the report, which adds that last year 145 plants without the technology put out nearly 580,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. The report suggests “Pruitt is making it easier for coal plants and other industrial facilities to avoid New Source Review altogether.”


— Alaska’s political climate change: The deep-red state that is also a major oil and gas producer is discussing on its own plan to address the global warming, the New York Times reports, which will include potentially cutting state emissions by 2025 and taxing companies that emit carbon dioxide. “While many conservative-leaning states have resisted aggressive climate policies, Alaska is already seeing the dramatic effects of global warming firsthand, making the issue difficult for local politicians to ignore,” per the report. 



  • EPA chief Scott Pruitt testifies before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on technology to address climate change.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a legislative hearing.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment holds a hearing on “Legislation Addressing New Source Review Permitting Reform."
  • The National Press Club holds an event with former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
  • The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation holds an event on manufacturing at the Energy Department.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing on America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds an oversight hearing on Thursday.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meetingon Thursday.
  • U.S. Energy Association holds an event on a carbon sequestration partnership on Thursday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a conversation with Total S.A. CEO Patrick Pouyanné on Thursday.

— NASA is sending a tiny robot helicopter to Mars: A robot spacecraft that has a meter-long rotor and a body the size of a chihuahua will fly in the underbelly of the Mars 2020 rover when it launches in two years, The Post's Sarah Kaplan reports.