On Wednesday, two Senate Republicans — Richard Burr of North Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine — joined every Democrat to reject a measure that attempted to chip away at the compromise $1.3 trillion spending package brokered by the two parties in March.
Burr voted against the bill because it would have pulled back funding promised to a program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The LWCF is a half-century-old program that provides money to federal, state and local governments for the acquisition of land and waters to bolster parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public areas. The fund is often used to consolidate “checkerboarded” public lands that are intermingled with private holdings, which are often difficult for government agencies to manage and for hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts to access. Such purchases are nearly entirely paid for by a portion of the money the government collects from oil and natural gas leasing on the outer continental shelf.
Burr's vote against the rescissions package is an early sign of a political tussle that may lie ahead. The LWCF is set to expire at the end of September, and Burr along with a bipartisan group of western senators — including Republicans Steve Daines (Mont.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Democrats Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) — held a news conference in front of the Capitol on Wednesday urging Congress to make the program permanent. The LWCF received a three-year extension in 2015 after lapsing that year.
“I sort of feel like every time we get together with this deadline looming that we're on a reeducation program about what LWCF is,” said Burr, who along with Cantwell introduced a bill last year to permanently reauthorize the program.
Because it is paid for with oil and gas revenue — and not directly by taxpayers — the program is popular among some Republicans. In fact, there is a bipartisan push in both the House and Senate to set up a parallel fund, also financed through energy revenue, to do $11.6 billion worth of repairs and other maintenance work needed in national parks.
Although LWCF's revenue comes mostly from offshore oil and gas operations, Congress determines the level of appropriations each year. That amount, though, has “fluctuated widely” since the fund was created in 1965, according to the Congressional Research Service. Of the $36.2 billion in revenue collected through its history, only $16.8 billion — less than half — has been appropriated to it by Congress.
Recent history suggests keeping and funding LWCF may face stronger head winds in the House than in the Senate. A House bill to make LWCF a permanent program has garnered 228 co-sponsors, more than enough to pass the measure. But most of its backers are Democrats, meaning House leaders may not necessarily put the bill to a floor vote.
Meanwhile, the Senate has already once passed a larger bipartisan energy bill that included permanent reauthorization for LWCF. The House, however, did not take up that package.
"Now we're just looking for what is that right vehicle and right opportunity that we know the House will take action on as well," Cantwell told reporters last week. "The Senate has been very united."
Even if Congress allows the LWCF to continue, that does not mean it will fully fund it. "Authorization is one thing, and we need to authorize it," said Tester, "but that may be just the kind of keep-the-wolves-away-from-the door thing. Now we got to fund it."
When the LWCF was last reauthorized in 2015, only one House Republican voted with Democrats to revive the lapsed program. But that dissenting Republican was Ryan Zinke, who at the time represented Montana in Congress. As a congressman, Zinke also backed permanently authorizing the fund. Last year, he stepped down to serve as President Trump's interior secretary.
“It is time for Republicans to return to our conservationist roots,” Zinke wrote in a 2015 letter to the editor published in The Washington Post in defense of the LWCF. During his confirmation hearing, Zinke told lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that they have his “full commitment” to the permanent authorization for the program.
But when the White House put forward its fiscal 2019 budget proposal this year, the Trump administration did not promise to support the program's reauthorization — either permanently nor temporarily. In fact, the Trump administration unsuccessfully proposed slashing funding for the program by 95 percent.
The administration, including Zinke, said it wants to prioritize maintaining the lands the government has. But when pressed by Tester during a budget hearing in May, Zinke suggested he could compromise.
“As you know, the budget is a proposal,” Zinke said, “and this is where the two branches come together and discuss priorities.”
With the LWCF's expiration approaching, conservationists urged Zinke this week to reiterate this support for the program. “Over its lifetime, LWCF has done a lot to make America great,” Mark Tercek, chief executive of the Nature Conservancy, wrote in a letter to the interior secretary.
The defeated rescissions bill that was pushed by the White House, along with fiscal conservatives in both chambers, would have pulled back $16 million of LWCF funds from the U.S. Forest Service that have been committed to specific projects. Burr's office said he was not guaranteed a vote on his amendment to protect the funding.
More often than not, Burr is a reliable Republican vote. But he has on occasion broken away from his party on certain environmental issues.
Last year, Burr and Thom Tillis, North Carolina's other Republican senator, sunk the nomination of Michael Dourson as the top chemical safety official at the Environmental Protection Agency. The senators were concerned with Dourson’s record as a consultant for chemical companies in which he produced research finding little or no human health risks for their products. The topic is a politically charged one in North Carolina, where a Marine Corps base faces significant water contamination issues.
Collins, a moderate Republican who often breaks with her party, did so this time with the rescissions bill because of cuts it would make to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
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— Pruitt watch: The lobbyist whose wife helped EPA chief Scott Pruitt get a deal on a condominium on Capitol Hill also contacted his chief of staff to try to get a job for a family friend. Steven Hart contacted Pruitt's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, to look into “administration policies affecting his clients and potential appointments to the EPA’s scientific advisory boards and possible agency hires” for the family friend, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report, according to emails released in response to a lawsuit by the Sierra Club. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told The Post the agency did not hire the friend, Jimmy Guilliano, and that the agency stands by its previous statement that Hart did not lobby the agency.
“I seldom talk to Scott but Vicki does,” Hart wrote in an email to Jackson. “She has talked to Scott about this kid who is important to us. He told Vicki to talk to you about how to handle this. I am not sure personally that this is a good idea for Jimmy unless he is working near you. Sticking him down in the bowels is death at EPA. His family is all Naval Academy by the way.”
In a statement on Sunday, Hart said he "never received any special treatment from Administrator Pruitt or had any undue influence over the Environmental Protection Agency. Ryan Jackson is an old friend whom I have known for many years prior to his service with the EPA... We have discussed numerous issues and topics during his tenure as chief of staff, but he has never performed a special favor on my behalf.”
— Another day, another probe: The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is reviewing claims that Pruitt retaliated against employees who criticized his spending and management, Politico reports. “At least six current and former agency officials were reportedly fired or reassigned to new jobs, allegedly for questioning Pruitt's need for a 24-hour security protection… as well as his other spending and practices,” per the report. The review adds to the dozen or so other federal investigations into Pruitt.
— And another commemorative coin: The EPA is commissioning a "challenge" coin for its response to natural disasters in 2017, including Hurricane Maria that has left some Puerto Ricans still without power months later. A contract that will cost the agency more than $8,500 will be awarded to The Lapel Pins Plus Network LLC, CNN reports, to create a “two-inch color 3-D ‘coin award’ that displays the EPA Emergency Response program logo on the inner circle and ‘HURRICANES HARVEY, IRMA AND MARIA — THE CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES’ on the outer circle.” The contract indicates the coin should “convey the sentiment that EPA staff from all across the country worked together to respond to the incidents from Puerto Rico to California (and regions in between),” per the report. The contract requests 1,750 coins to be delivered by the end of the month.
— An even seven dozen: The bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus last week added six new members: Reps. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), Robert Scott (D-Va.), Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). The additions bring the ranks of the caucus, whose members say they are serious about climate change but have yet to rally behind any legislation, to 84 with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
— Perry set to meet with Russia’s energy minister: Energy Secretary Rick Perry will host his counterpart, Russian Oil Minister Alexander Novak, in Washington for a meeting next week, the Wall Street Journal reports in what will be the “latest outreach from President Donald Trump’s administration as it continues a push for better relations with Russia.” The meeting comes as White House national security adviser John Bolton is scheduled to head to Russia this month to discuss a potential summit between the two nation’s leaders.
Perry will discuss energy cooperation between Russia and the United States — something recent sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea put the kibosh on, at least when it came to ExxonMobil's joint venture there to explore for oil in the Arctic.
— A new mission for NOAA: The Trump administration may be adjusting the mission of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency that operates under the Commerce Department and that along with NASA does the bulk of the federal government's climate research. A recent presentation given by acting head of the agency Tim Galludet included old and new descriptions of the agency’s purpose, the New York Times reports.
- The past mission said the agency's mission was “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts.”
- But the current mission of the NOAA, according to the presentation, did not include the word “climate"; instead, the first line of the mission read “to observe, understand and predict atmospheric and ocean conditions.” The new mission also included an emphasis to “protect lives and property, empower the economy, and support homeland and national security.”
While regulatory agencies dealing with climate change, like the EPA, have been hit with sweeping changes under Trump, scientific agencies like NOAA and NASA have yet to really upended in the same way. The rewritten mission may be a sign of things to come.
— OPEC reaches a deal: Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries reached a deal on Friday to boost oil output an additional 600,000 to 700,000 barrels a day in an effort to moderate prices. “The deal to increase production was cast as a compromise hammered out by Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih and Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh,” The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. “The new agreement would technically allow for an increase of 1 million barrels a day, but many of the OPEC countries are unable to boost production from current levels for technical as well as political reasons. Output could rise further by the end of the year.”
- Analysts say the final deal was a “setback” for Iran, which lobbied against the increase: "The Iranians really caved, just caved,” said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC, adding Iran “got none of the concessions it was seeking on production or a show of solidarity on sanctions.”
- And the decision stands to help shale companies in the United States: “The move eased concerns among the member countries about tightening supply and the potential for a price spike, but it also lifted the stock prices of U.S. oil producers, which have learned to survive at whichever price OPEC pursues,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Meanwhile: Brent crude prices dropped more than 1 percent on Monday as investors anticipated an increase in production following OPEC’s decision, Reuters reports.
— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric carmaker is making further moves to downsize following the announcement that it would cut about 9 percent of the company. The company will downsize its residential solar business, SolarCity, that it bought two years ago, Reuters reports. “About 60 installation facilities remain open, according to an internal company list reviewed by Reuters. An internal company email named 14 facilities slated for closure, but the other list included only 13 of those locations,” per the report. “Tesla declined to comment on which sites it planned to shut down, how many employees would lose their jobs or what percentage of the solar workforce they represent. The company said that cuts to its overall energy team — including batteries to store power — were in line with the broader 9 percent staff cut.”
— “The storms are worse. The rain is worse. The heat is worse:” Immense rains have caused flash flooding in areas across the country in recent weeks, including the Great Lakes region, the Deep South, and suburbs of East Coast cities like Philadelphia. Some of the rains come from tropical ocean waters, others from thunderstorms and are a result of long-rising air temperatures and an increase in the size of these more-frequent storms, The Post’s Tim Craig and Angela Fritz report. And the storms and rains are worsening. “Things are definitely getting more extreme,” said Andreas Prein, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “You just have to look at the records. All areas of the continental U.S. have seen increases in peak rainfall rates in the past 50 years. . . . And there is a chance that we are underestimating the risk, actually.”
— The last straw: A ban on plastic straws and utensils will take effect in Seattle on July 1, and is expected to keep several million straws from being thrown away in the city each month, the Seattle Times reports. The city has already started by prohibiting foam and plastic clamshell containers, Becca Fong of Seattle Public Utilities told the newspaper, "but it took longer for the supply market to come up with alternatives for other plastic items, such as a compostable spoon that would not dissolve in hot liquids."
— Will DNA save the trees? Environmental advocates are pushing to create a DNA database of tree populations on the West Coast as a way to prevent the spread of black markets for wood. “Environmental advocates hope that DNA databases could be used for legal cases,” the New York Times reports. “Several people in the United States have been convicted of illegal logging using DNA evidence. Genetic markers can indicate whether a tree was logged from a protected location.”
- The 27th World Gas Conference begins.
- The Solar and Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico holds an energy summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico today and Tuesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing on Energy Department nominees on Tuesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a legislative hearing on offshore renewable energy opportunities on Tuesday.
- The EPA holds a webinar on source water protection on Tuesday.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a conference starting on Tuesday.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event with the CEO of Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) Climate Investments on Tuesday.
- The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee holds an executive session on various legislative measures on Wednesday.
— Firefly photo-bomb: Here a shot of that photobomb that Kathryn Prociv highlights for Capital Weather Gang's picture of the week: