Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

Green groups wasted little time denouncing the administration’s environmental policies in the hours after President Trump announced his controversial Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was stepping down.

But the press releases from the Wilderness Society and the Center for Western Priorities were not so much about the EPA or its outgoing chief as they were about another Trump Cabinet official — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. 

For months, advocacy organizations focused on public-lands issues have attempted to raise the profile of Zinke and his activities at the Interior Department. Now with Pruitt gone, they hope Zinke’s time has come.

“In many ways,” said Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities, “Pruitt was the best thing Zinke had going for him.”

Zinke, whose job appears safe for now, has provoked some environmental groups by attempting to roll back Obama-era regulations meant to curb oil spills and greenhouse-gas emissions. Chase Huntley, energy and climate program director at the Wilderness Society, wrote in an email that “we’ve seen a similar ‘industry first’ pattern of favoritism with the policy decisions made by the Zinke-led Interior department.”

But those regulatory machinations did not dominate headlines like the sordid stories about Pruitt recruiting government workers to help him buy moisturizer from Ritz-Carltons or a mattress from Trump’s Washington hotel did.

So environmental groups are trying to make the point that, like Pruitt, Zinke has face numerous inquiries from independent investigators within his department.  

A day after the Pruitt resignation news, for example, public-lands group Western Values Project released a “side-by-side” comparison of the two Cabinet members’ “competing scandals.” They involve expensive flights and other examples of what the group calls “lavish spending" with public money.

One of the bigger trouble spots for Zinke may prove to be the inspector general's investigation into his involvement in a Montana land deal backed by the chairman of the oil services firm Halliburton.

Last year, Zinke took the oilman, David J. Lesar, along with Lesar’s son and the project’s lead developer, on a private tour of the Lincoln Memorial not normally available to the public. That probe, which was opened last month, and others have been launched at the prompting of congressional Democrats who say Zinke has been unresponsive to their letters requesting information about the department's affairs.

By the Western Values Project's count, Pruitt and Zinke each face a comparable number of investigations — 16 and 10, respectively.

So far, Zinke and his team seem to have handled the scrutiny more diplomatically. Zinke’s press aides, like Pruitt's, aggressively defend Zinke’s decisions. But they rarely do so by spitting personal vitriol at reporters.

In contrast, the EPA’s press shop often respond to negative news stories by going on offense, calling various reporters “a piece of trash” and “dishonest” and accusing them of trying to “steal” others’ work and of producing “elitist clickbait.”

And when Zinke has erred, he at times has apologized — unlike Pruitt. For example, Zinke photographed himself wearing socks emblazoned with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” while hiking with governors near Mount Rushmore.

The picture, posted on Zinke’s official government Twitter account, appeared to run afoul of a law prohibiting federal employees from using their offices for political campaigning. In March, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel issued clear guidance regarding the statute in question, the Hatch Act, by warning workers to not “wear, display, or distribute items with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’” while on duty.

Realizing the problem, Zinke quickly deleted the tweet and apologized for the “mistake” in a follow-up message the same day. The closest Pruitt ever came to admitting culpability was telling a congressional committee in April that leading the EPA “has been a learning process” for him.

POWER PLAYS

— Was Pruitt forced out? All news reports point to the answer being "yes." White House chief of staff John Kelly called Pruitt on Thursday to tell him to finally resign from his post as EPA chief, Bloomberg News reports. It was a move that Trump wanted, and the recent reports about Pruitt’s “secret” calendar of meetings that had been altered was “effectively the final straw after a tenure marred by alleged ethical missteps.”

“Pruitt didn’t want to leave his post and was described as being devastated that he had to resign, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing a personnel matter,” Bloomberg News adds. The Post is also reporting that the ouster came at Kelly's request.

— Handicapping Pruitt's odds at a comeback: The controversies that led to Pruitt’s fall may not mean the end of his career potential in Oklahoma, kingmakers in his home state say. His deregulatory approach — and the fact that some of his supporters believe his ouster was the result of unfair liberal outrage — could allow Pruitt to rebuild his career there in a possible run for a Senate seat in 2020.

  • "I think Oklahomans still love him, support him and trust him," Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Pam Pollard told the Associated Press. "We’ll give him the opportunity to tell his side of the story.”
  • "Whatever Scott Pruitt’s problems, whether they were self-inflicted or not, it really doesn’t matter, in my view, because his approach was correct, and that needs to continue,” Dewey F. Bartlett Jr., an oil executive and former mayor of Tulsa, similarly told the New York Times. “Now, how Scott will be welcomed back in Tulsa, back in Oklahoma, that will be O.K."
  • Finally, the 83-year-old James Inhofe (R), the Oklahoma senator whose seat Pruitt could possibly run for and who once wavered in his support of Pruitt, gave the ex-administrator his blessing by saying he did “great work” at the agency.

— A final policy move on the way out the door: On Pruitt’s last day in office, the agency moved to allow “a loophole that will allow a major increase in the manufacturing of a diesel freight truck that produces as much as 55 times the air pollution as trucks that have modern emissions controls,” the New York Times reports. That quiet policy shift was one of the few being contemplated at the EPA that did not have the enthusiastic backing of congressional Republicans.

— Ex-Pruitt aide takes credit: Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, told The Hill on Friday that he was critical to the eventual departure of the former administrator. “I hate to take a credit for a man losing his job, but I guess I’d have to say that I take the credit,” he said on Pruitt’s last day, specifically pointing to the use of public records requests to help bring him down. “I’ve put the breadcrumbs where they had to go and pointed to the FOIAs [Freedom of Information Act requests]... They’ve all come back, and in a lot of cases they were worse than I even knew about.”

— What’s next for Andrew Wheeler: The EPA's new acting chief said he was ready for the job at hand in a Q&A with The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis.

“I don’t think the overall agenda is going to change that much, because we’re implementing what the president has laid out for the agency,” Wheeler said. “He made several campaign promises that we are working to fulfill here. But there will probably be a little bit of difference in the way Administrator Pruitt and I will talk about some issues.”

Wheeler said his long confirmation process to become Pruitt’s deputy gave him a chance to determine what he wanted to do for the agency. While he said he would not criticize his predecessor, he signaled a more transparent process under his leadership. "I believe that my time on the Hill and in the legislation I worked on — how I addressed all statutes, how I addressed all laws — was that the more information we make available to the American public, the more transparency we have, the better our decisions will be,’ he said. “The more open we are, the better it is for everyone.”

Replacing Pruitt with a policy wonk is an unsurprising change, Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told The Post. In almost every administration, a first round of high-profile Cabinet members “usually give way to lower-profile folks that actually run the department," he said. "I think they probably run them better.”

The takeaway: Wheeler “intends to pursue many of the regulatory rollbacks Pruitt put in motion and to carry out Trump’s promises of a more efficient, less powerful EPA," Eilperin and Dennis write.

THERMOMETER

— Man, it’s a hot one: New daily, monthly and all-time record temperature highs were set throughout Southern California late last week due to a heat dome across the area, which The Post’s Jason Samenow reports was the “same one that brought record heat to Denver and Burlington, Vt., and is to blame for at least 54 heat-related deaths in southern Quebec.”

“In recent days, after focusing over the eastern half of the United States, it has shifted westward and, in some locations, its intensity is record-setting,” Samenow adds.

  • Hollywood Burbank Airport set a record of 114 degrees, beating a 1976 record of 103 degrees.
  • Van Nuys Airport set a record of 117 degrees, beating a 2017 record of 99 degrees
  • Ramona set a record of 117 degrees, beating a previous 111 degree record.
  • Santa Ana set a record of 114 degrees, beating a previous 112 degree record.
  • And Riverside tied a 1925 record of 118 degrees.

About 29,000 homes in the Los Angeles area were without power on Sunday as a result of the heat wave over the weekend, and crews from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power were still working to restore electricity for 26,500 customers by Sunday evening, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Finally, the record heat "underscored worries among officials and scientists that fire season would come earlier to California this year," according to the New York Times. Already, a blaze along California’s border with Oregon burned through more than 30,000 acres by Sunday and was only 25 percent contained, per the San Francisco Chronicle. There were more than 2,300 firefighters, 176 fire engines and 14 helicopters working to put out the flames. The so-called Klamathon fire had killed at least one person over the weekend.

Meanwhile, on the other end of California, Santa Barbara County is burning again just a few months after the major Thomas wildfire. When the so-called Holiday fire broke out in the area on Friday, the temperature in the area was around 100 degrees, the Los Angeles Times reports. The 400-acre fire was 80 percent contained by Sunday and officials expected it to be fully contained by Wednesday.

— Another Atlantic storm: Chris, the third named storm of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, is set to strengthen into a hurricane in the next couple of days, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. The storm, named on Sunday, strengthened off the coast of the Carolinas and had maximum winds of 40 miles per hour. “As the storm is positioned over very warm ocean waters, it is forecast to steadily strengthen over the next 72 hours and become a hurricane between Tuesday and Wednesday,” Samenow writes. “At that point, a cold front should absorb Chris and rapidly sweep it to the north-northeast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It should gradually weaken as it moves over cooler water.”

Phil Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University, points out the third named storm of the Atlantic season formed more than a month ahead of the average date: 

OIL CHECK

— Another emissions scandal: Nissan acknowledged that an internal review found exhaust emission results and fuel-economy data had been falsified in five factories in Japan in the latest revelation of misconduct for the carmaker.  “The way the tests were conducted deviated from prescribed norms, the automaker said in a statement on Monday, adding it also found employees filed inspection reports based on altered measurements,” according to Bloomberg News. “This data manipulation happened to the sampling test, part of the final car inspection process, the automaker said.”

— Oil watch: Iran’s oil minister criticized Trump’s call for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase production in order to help reduce oil prices, calling the order insulting. "Trump sends every day a new message that creates uncertainty in the market," Iran’s oil minister Bijan Zanganeh said in an interview with state-run television, according to Reuters. "Trump's order to OPEC members to increase production is a great insult to those governments and nations, and destabilises the market."

Trump has been making those calls on Twitter and elsewhere seemingly over fears that high gas prices could hurt Republicans in the midterm elections. One energy expert predicts oil prices could spike another 10 percent by the end of the summer. "We can get into the $80s for Brent again, and I think we could get to $80 for WTI," the Oil Price Information Service global head of energy analysis Tom Kloza told CNBC.

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration holds science seminars starting on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on “Proper Administration of Water Facilities” on Wednesday.
  • The World Resources Institute holds a webinar “Climate Watch” on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds an oversight hearing on “The Essential Role of Livestock Grazing on Federal Lands and Its Importance to Rural America” on Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to “consider the policy issues facing interstate delivery networks for natural gas and electricity” on Thursday.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event on “Environmental Progress in the Oil and Gas Industry” on Thursday.
  • The Wilson Center's China Environment Forum holds an event on "Streamlining China’s Environmental Governance" on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— "Historic" rains in Japan: Dozens have been killed and many are missing as a result of the torrential downpour in western Japan, The Post's Simon Denyer reports