Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

Top Democrats in Congress tried to tie a recent rise in gasoline prices to President Trump as the summer driving season approaches and the fall’s midterm elections follow soon after.

Standing in front of an Exxon station blocks from Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) made the case that Trump’s decision to end U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal brokered by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, is constraining global oil supply and forcing motorists to tighten their belts before the Memorial Day weekend.

“President Trump’s reckless decision to pull out of the Iran deal has led to higher oil prices,” Schumer told reporters. “These higher oil prices are translating directly to soaring gas prices, something we know hurts middle- and lower-income people.”

The gas station news conference is just the latest chapter in a long history of Washington lawmakers making hay out of the price at the pump whenever it creeps up — even as energy analysts argue that U.S. presidents possess little power to set global oil prices.

Trump, Democrats’ target on Wednesday, is a veteran of this blame game. Before entering politics, Trump repeatedly faulted Obama on Twitter for high gas prices during his presidency:

“Things are getting more and more charged,” said Patrick DeHaan, a petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com. He added, “Then again, D.C. is all about politicizing everything.”

This year, the price of a barrel of oil — and subsequently, a gallon of gas — has risen because of events abroad.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel of petroleum-producing nations dominated by Saudi Arabia, along with non-member Russia have worked together to cut production (they could ease up on it soon) while, on the other side of the world, oil production in Venezuela has plummeted as the country sinks into economic crisis.

As a result, analysts from both AAA and GasBuddy.com say the United States will see its highest summer gasoline prices since 2014.

The price of gasoline at the Exxon station chosen as a backdrop by Senate Democrats was $3.89 per gallon — or about 22 percent higher than the average Washington, D.C. that day, according to GasBuddy.

According to the website, that station had the highest price for regular gasoline in all of the District — though it is also one of the closest fill-up stations to the Capitol Building. On Wednesday, GasBuddy's national average was $2.96 per gallon.

Schumer along with three of his fellow Senate Democrats — Maria Cantwell of Washington, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts — also sent a letter to Trump asking him to pressure OPEC into increasing world oil supplies.

“The current run up in world oil prices is effectively a tax on every American family’s discretionary budget, except that the money goes to the OPEC cartel rather than the U.S. Treasury,” the senators wrote to Trump.

Republicans quickly called foul on Democrats for encouraging oil drilling abroad while trying to stall it at home.

“I agree that OPEC’s supply restrictions are driving prices higher and should be addressed, but I was stunned to hear my colleagues encouraging more production from the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, rather than right here in America, as the solution,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

Murkowski led the successful effort in the Senate to open a coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in her home state to oil and gas drilling, a decision widely opposed by the chamber’s Democrats.

“This is pretty simple,” she added. “If you don’t support access, leasing, production, pipelines, refineries, or the reasonable regulation of all of those, you’ll be left at the mercy of countries that don’t like us.”

Schumer's newfound defense of the Iran deal is a turn from his opposition to it in 2015, arguing back then that it would strengthen Iran by boosting its economy and ultimately may not prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb. Schumer has since called on Trump to stay in the multilateral agreement.

Pulling out of the Iran deal has so far added “only a couple cents a gallon” to the price of gasoline, according to DeHaan. 

“It certainly could have held an explosive potential, but it’s proved to be sort of a dud,” DeHaan said. That is because U.S. allies have been apprehensive about applying their own sanctions on Iranian oil, keeping it in the global market, he added.

Yet the impact of the higher gas prices, whatever the reasons, is still being felt by U.S. drivers. A recent Goldman Sachs analysis, cited by Senate Democrats, found that the uptick in oil prices could wipe out the benefit of the GOP’s tax cuts.

If drivers indeed feel such an effect, it may make it harder for congressional Republicans to place their reelection chances on touting the tax breaks.

“I guarantee you,” Cantwell said at the news conference, “what they got in the tax break just got washed away in higher fuel prices.”

POWER PLAYS

— Trump administration weighed ignoring climate research: White House officials considered whether to ignore climate research under its watch from government scientists, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Chris Mooney report. A memo obtained by The Post outlined three options for moving forward: conduct a “red team/blue team” exercise to “highlight uncertainties in climate science”; formally review the science under the Administrative Procedure Act; or just “ignore, and not seek to characterize or question, the science being conducted by Federal agencies and outside entities.”

— Pruitt watch: Almost half of Americans are not aware of the ethical scandals swirling around Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, according to a new poll commissioned by Axios. The poll found 48 percent of respondents were “not at all” aware of the controversies. Another 36 percent said they were "somewhat" aware and just 16 percent said they were “very” aware. Still, the poll found 80 percent of Americans believe Pruitt should be fired if the agency’s internal watchdog finds he has “misused his position,” even if the president supports him.

— More barred from Day 2 of the toxic-chemical summit: One day after a temporary media blackout Tuesday at a national summit on toxic chemicals, EPA staff again prevented reporters from multiple publications from entering the event yesterday. After reports that an Associated Press reporter was forcibly removed Tuesday from the building by a guard, the EPA reversed its decision to ban the media, and reporters were invited to the summit in the afternoon. But Politico reports on Wednesday, no reporters were allowed in. In a statement, the EPA noted that Wednesday’s meeting was limited to agencies that handle chemical oversight and state regulators, per Politico.

Reporters noted the ban on Twitter on Wednesday, and Grand Rapids Press reporter Garret Ellison said nonprofit groups were not invited, either:

Politico's Emily Holden; 

To boot, Daniel Kildee (D), the congressman who represents Flint, Mich., said his staff was barred from the water-contamination summit, as well:

The EPA's congressional affairs office initially told Kildee's staff it was “optimistic” that one of the congressman's staff members could attend. After following the event online Tuesday, a Kildee staffer went to EPA headquarters to attend Wednesday's session, but was turned away at the door.

In a statement, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the event was not required to be public. “The National Leadership Summit on PFAS scheduled is not a federal advisory committee event,” Wilcox said, according to CNN. “The purpose of this event is for EPA's state, tribal, and federal government partners and national organizations to share a range of individual perspectives on the agency's actions to date and path forward on PFOA/PFAS. The agency looks forward to hearing from all stakeholders on these crucial issues.”

— Great Lakes panel on the back burner: The Great Lakes Advisory Board hasn't met in almost a year. The appointments of all 14 members of the panel have expired, and the EPA hasn’t posted a notice calling for new appointments, E&E News reports. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is planning to update the board's charter before renewing it “in the coming months.” “Board members say they've been left in the dark, unsure of why they've been dropped or whether they'll ever be reappointed,” per the report. “The board's last meeting was on May 30, 2017, when members submitted to EPA a draft report responding to the most recent charge questions posed by the Obama administration. Those recommendations included strategies to limit nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes and advice on how to become more proactive in forecasting toxic algae blooms and other threats to the Great Lakes, and how better to keep the public informed on the Initiative's progress.”

— California vs. Trump: The chair of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, last week called the Trump administration’s latest challenge to Obama-era vehicle emissions targets “a piece of crap," ahead of her meeting yesterday with Trump officials.

“As the head of the board, the 73-year-old Nichols is arguably California’s most powerful weapon in its war with President Donald Trump over the state’s plan to combat climate change and have automakers toe the California line,” Bloomberg News reports. “If they’ve done their research, the administration officials meeting with her Wednesday won’t be fooled by her demeanor — unfailingly polite — or by her pulling a favorite trick to break the ice: showing up with a Tupperware container of chocolate-chip cookies.”

Nichols met with auto industry and federal officials, who reiterated the hope of avoiding a separate standard for auto efficiency for California, Bloomberg reports. After the meeting, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said the administration would continue the conversation “so that domestic automakers do not have to comply with two different regulatory regimes."

— Corn wars: Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) is calling out Pruitt after another major oil refiner is looking for a “hardship” waiver to the nation’s biofuel rules. Marathon Petroleum, the nation's second-largest refiner, wants a waiver that would enable it to ignore the requirement under the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that 15 billion gallons of ethanol is blended in the nation’s gas supply. "That an oil company making billions of dollars in profits even thinks it has a shot at receiving a 'hardship' waiver proves how broken this process is," the Iowa Republican said in a statement to the Progressive Farmer. “Any changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard have to fix this embarrassing loophole and guarantee 15 billion gallons of ethanol actually get blended.”

— Grizzly fate: A Wyoming wildlife commission voted unanimously to approve the state’s first grizzly bear hunt in four decades. Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 have been federally protected from hunts since 1975, reports The Post’s Karin Brulliard. Back then, only about 136 grizzlies lived in and around Yellowstone National Park. But last year, the population of the bear bounced back to about 700, which led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take them off the endangered species list.

The scope of the hunt: The proposal in Wyoming says a maximum of one female or 10 male grizzlies could be killed inside the state’s section of a federally designated area where biologist track the species’ population. Another 12 bears, male or female, would be allowed to be hunted outside the designated area. Neighboring Idaho this month also approved the hunt of a single male bear.

— "I have no reason to doubt the science:" NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine definitively confirmed that he now believes humans are primarily responsible for climate change. "Signifying a striking conversion, he confirmed that he now accepts that humans are, in fact, the leading cause," The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.

What Bridenstine said this week: “The National Climate Assessment, that includes NASA, and it includes the Department of Energy, and it includes NOAA, has clearly stated it is extremely likely, [that] is the language they use, that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming, and I have no reason to doubt the science that comes from that,” Bridenstine said during a Senate testimony Wednesday.

What Bridenstine said in 2013: "Global temperatures, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles," he said in a 2013 House floor speech as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, contradicting a majority of climate scientists who attribute recent warming to human activity.

The testimony signified "a striking conversion," The Post's Jason Samenow wrote. Indeed, Trump's NASA administrator admitted so too. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked Wednesday, "Is it fair to call this an evolution of your views?” Bridenstine replied, “Yes."

THERMOMETER

— Rice could become less nutritious because of climate change: A new study in the journal Science Advances found rice contained lower levels of key nutrients, including vitamins B1, B2, B5 and B9, when grown amid high concentrations of carbon dioxide, The Post's Chris Mooney reports. Given that rice accounts for “approximately 25% of all global calories,” according to the study, the health consequences could be enormous. The new paper "builds on a major study published in Nature in 2014" that found reduced zinc and iron in other staple foods due to the buildup of greenhouse gases, according to the New York Times.

— The last straw: A bill introduced Wednesday by the New York City Council would outlaw plastic straws at restaurants, bars and other service establishments in the city. More than 60 restaurants have already gotten rid of straws, the New York Times reports. “New Yorkers need to know and understand that plastic isn’t the only type of straw available,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr., told the Times. “There are paper straws, aluminum straws and bamboo straws that are much safer for our environment, to name just a few.”

— Storm watch: There could be anywhere from three to six hurricanes in the next six months in the Central Pacific, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Central Pacific Hurricane Center predicts. The average season usually sees three to five hurricanes, the Associated Press reports.

— New weather satellite faulty: The weather-monitoring instrument on the NOAA’s newest satellite has not been working properly, and the issue was apparent as soon as the new satellite got into position and started testing its data, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. The instrument, called GOES-17, was running too hot for 12 hours a day, project scientists found. "Without this data from GOES-17," Fritz writes, "forecasts won’t be as good as they could have been."

OIL CHECK

— Not on track: Just four of 38 energy sectors and technologies were on track to meet climate and air pollution goals, according to the International Energy Agency. Four areas — solar photovoltaic (PV), lighting, data centers and networks and electric vehicles — have made “tremendous progress” last year, the IEA study found, Reuters reports. But most other technologies and sectors were not on track, and some had slowed or stalled on progress.

— The road ahead for Tesla: In California, Tesla’s Model 3 sedan recorded more registrations than its competition, the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class, in the first quarter, Reuters reports. There were 3,723 Model 3 registrations, compared with 3,323 for the Mercedes and 3,260 for the BMW model, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.

— Oil watch: Drilling pioneer and Trump booster Harold Hamm predicts benchmark U.S. crude prices could keep rising, even after 3 1/2 -year highs. “We're not looking at $100 oil in the future, or probably $90 oil, but it certainly could be in the mid-$70s and low $80s,” he told CNBC.

— Winding up: Massachusetts and Rhode Island announced they will carry out wind projects that are projected to deliver enough power for 600,000 homes, the Associated Press reports. The collaboration will be located south of Martha’s Vineyard.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the American Biogas Council hold a briefing.
  • The Senate Appropriations Committee holds a markupof Energy and Water Development and Agriculture Appropriations Bills.

Coming Up

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Cue the swamp jokes: A sinkhole formed on the North Lawn of the White House after several days of rain in Washington. Here's how The Post's Jason Samenow put it: “At the White House, the pressure was too much, and a patch of well-manicured turf near the press briefing room caved in, forming perhaps one of the most famous sinkholes in history.”