Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

The Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to roll back rules issued under President Barack Obama will likely continue without its ousted leader, Scott Pruitt.

One thing that may change: The way the agency talks about its deregulatory work.

The EPA's new chief, Andrew Wheeler, says he wants a fresh start with the reporters who have aggressively covered both the agency's policies as well as the proclivities of Pruitt. The acting administrator is vowing to be more transparent with reporters and other members of the public.

"As with any change in leadership you can expect a change in approach," EPA spokesman John Konkus said Monday, "and in this case a change in tone as well."

But environmental groups are skeptical that a former coal lobbyist will be forthcoming about his intentions at the agency. "Wheeler doesn't get a prize for maybe abiding by the minimum transparency standards required by law at some undisclosed point in the near future," said the Sierra Club's Maura Cowley.

Though journalists have long criticized the EPA under Obama and George W. Bush for a lack of transparency, Pruitt's tenure was marked by an unprecedented opacity. Under the embattled administrator, the agency deviated from the practice of previous EPA chiefs by generally not telling reporters for national outlets where Pruitt would be traveling and publicly speaking until he went there, often only clueing in a couple of local publications when trying to get friendly coverage. The agency would send out press releases about Pruitt's public appearances only during or after they occurred.

The EPA signaled that would change. Konkus said Monday the agency will change its "approach to calendars, schedules, briefings, etc." but that the details "will be worked out over the coming days and weeks."

Wheeler also appears to be trying to build a rapport directly with the EPA's press corps. Toward the beginning of 2018, Pruitt sat down for interviews with mainstream newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times. But as the year wore on and the controversies mounted, Pruitt began granting few interviews beyond safe spaces such as right-leaning radio shows and online outlets.

Seemingly seeking to turn over a new leaf, Wheeler spoke with reporters from The Post and the Wall Street Journal shortly after learning he would be elevated.

"The more information we make available to the American public, the more transparency we have, the better our decisions will be," Wheeler told The Post on Friday. "The more open we are, the better it is for everyone."

Wheeler's experience engaging with the press stretches back to his time serving as staff director for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), former chairman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In an interview last year, Wheeler said he "held press briefings before every hearing and every markup that we had" for the committee.

Pruitt's press team made headlines by taking a page from Trump's media playbook and deploying personal attacks in response to scrutinizing coverage. One spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, notably called one reporter a "piece of trash" and falsely accused another of trying to "steal" other outlets' work.

The Sierra Club's Cowley noted that, though it is early days in Wheeler's tenure, the agency so far is retaining those staffers "responsible for attacking reporters." 

She added, "it's really nothing but more of the same with a new face."

Wheeler also began dipping his toes into the biggest media maelstrom of them all — Twitter. The first tweet sent from his newly minted @EPAAWheeler account made it clear that while the EPA's press strategy may change, the agency's actual policies would not.

Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

POWER PLAYS

— Here's another Wheeler tweet: In 2009, the now-acting EPA administrator chided “climate alarmists” on Twitter while linking to a story in a conservative website called the American Thinker titled “No Wonder Climate Alarmists Refuse to Debate."

But the views of Wheeler, at least as he tells it, have evolved over the past decade. “I do believe climate change is real," he told The Post last week. "I do believe that people have an impact on the climate." E&E News, which pointed out the old tweet Monday, said the EPA’s press shop did not respond to a question about Wheeler’s current views. Wheeler tweeted from a Twitter handle described as his “personal account” and “not affiliated with my employer.”

— Off to a "troubling" start: Two EPA nominees, Peter Wright and Chad McIntosh, have already started working at the agency as "special counsels" to Wheeler, even though their formal nominations are still pending before the Senate, The Hill reports.

In a statement, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) called the move “troubling.” The hiring, he said, "not only breaks with past norm and precedents, but shows incredibly poor judgment, especially when we should be turning over a new leaf." Wright was tapped to lead the Office of Land and Emergency Management while McIntosh was picked to head the Office of International and Tribal Affairs.

— Trump's nominates a conservative stalwart to the high court: Trump on Monday night named Brett M. Kavanaugh, 53, a federal appellate judge with conservative bona fides as his second nominee to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, who worked in the George W. Bush administration and has deep ties to the GOP establishment, has a long record of opinions on environmental law, often voting against the EPA during his dozen years as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

“The judge upset environmentalists, for instance, with rulings against Obama-era regulations of toxic air pollution from power plants and efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases,” The Post’s Ann E. Marimow reports. “But in 2010, he upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s oversight of a California rule limiting emissions from refrigeration units in trucks challenged by the trucking industry."

Here's a sampling:

  • In the 2014 case White Stallion Energy Center LLC v. EPA, Kavanaugh argued the EPA needs to consider the financial impact in regulating power plant emissions, the Associated Press reports. “In my view, it is unreasonable for EPA to exclude considerations of costs in determining whether it is ‘appropriate’ to impose significant new regulations on electric utilities,” Kavanaugh wrote in his dissent.
  • And in a 2012 EME Homer City Generation L.P. v. EPA ruling, the court ruled in an opinion authored by Kavanaugh that the agency had overstepped its authority in curbing power plant pollution across state lines.

Lawmakers like Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., both Democrats from New Jersey, as well as environmental groups were primed to cast Kavanaugh's environmental record in a negative light.

— Pruitt probes live on: Some of the more than a dozen investigations into Pruitt’s spending and managing practices while at the helm of the EPA will continue even though he has left the building, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “While a few of them — including the two informal reviews inside the White House itself — might get shelved, others, such as one underway by a key House committee, are likely to continue forward,” they write.  Another independent agency investigating Pruitt, the Office of Special Counsel, could not confirm the status of the open investigations, but experts told The Post that they will likely continue as well.

So far, just one of the probes — by the Government Accountability Office into Pruitt’s soundproof phone booth — has resulted in a formal finding. That independent agency found the $43,000 expenditure violated federal spending laws.

— A strike back against a carbon tax: A coalition of 18 conservative groups sent a letter to Republican leaders Monday to push back against a tax on carbon emissions. “A carbon tax is a policy with one definable goal: to raise the cost of traditional, reliable, affordable sources of energy,” reads the letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

Why now? The note seems meant to counter the formation of a new group called Americans for Carbon Dividends that will lobby for a carbon-tax proposal backed by some environmental groups as well as oil majors like ExxonMobil, BP and Shell. 

THERMOMETER

— The last straw: Get ready for the Starbucks sippy cup. Starbucks announced it will stop giving out single-use plastic straws in all of its stores by 2020, instead replacing them with “strawless lids" and biodegradable straws, The Post’s Abha Bhattarai reports. The coffee chain the largest retailer to promise to eliminate single-use plastic straws. 

— Here's what 10 billion tons of ice falling into the ocean looks like: A newly posted video from New York University researchers captured the massive calving event last month in which a four-mile-long iceberg snapped off the Helheim Glacier in Greenland. “During the summer in Greenland, breaks from glaciers are common," The Post’s Chris Mooney reports, "but rarely so large."

— Man, it’s a hot one: A heat wave in Southern California over the weekend smoked several long-standing temperature records. Climate scientists have known such heat waves are coming, "and it may only be the beginning," The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.

A 2006 study titled “Climate, Extreme Heat, and Electricity Demand in California” in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology predicted "the frequency of extreme-heat events for major cities in heavily air-conditioned California is projected to increase rapidly" over the century.

As one of the study authors, Texas Tech University's Katharine Hayhoe, wrote on Twitter:

The study found a "potential for electricity deficits as high as 17 percent" later this century.

— Beryl blows toward U.S. territories still ravaged by storm: Power outages and floods hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Monday, as remnants of the season’s first hurricane, Beryl, impacted the area, the Associated Press reports. Those areas still in the midst of ongoing recovery following Hurricane Maria in September.

Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center predicts Tropical Storm Chris will strengthen into the 2018 Atlantic season’s second hurricane on Tuesday. "While increasing in strength, the storm is forecast to remain far enough offshore that its wind and rain avoid the Mid-Atlantic coastline," The Post’s Samenow and Brian McNoldy report. "But it will generate dangerous rip currents at area beaches, from Ocean City to Myrtle Beach, S.C."

 

OIL CHECK

— Top dollar: Chevron’s former executive John Watson was the highest-paid energy executive in the S&P 500 last year, taking home $24.8 million, the Wall Street Journal reports. It was the first time in Watson’s tenure as CEO that he earned more than the leader of ExxonMobil. Watson retired and was replaced in February. The median pay for energy sector chief executives at firms in that stock market index was $12.7 million in 2017.

— PG&E's wildfire woes: A California superior court ruled in favor of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company last week, granting a petition from the utility to reverse a previous decision that determined it was liable for damage related to a deadly 2015 fire in the state, reports Utility Dive.

Why is that significant? A Citi analyst told the financial news publisher The Fly the decision sets a "positive precedent" for utilities that authorities may want to hold responsible for future forest fires.

— No more monkeying around: A federal appeals court ruled Monday to uphold Volkswagen’s $10.3 billion settlement over claims from owners of almost 500,000 polluting diesel cars in the United States. The company has overall agreed to pay more than $25 billion in the United States. “The ruling on Monday pertained to the settlement covering the owners and former owners of 475,000 polluting 2.0-liter vehicles,” Reuters reports. “VW agreed to offer owners of the 2.0 liter vehicles between $5,100 and $10,000 in compensation, in addition to the estimated value of the vehicle.”

— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric automaker has increased prices of its Model X and S vehicles by more than $20,000 in China in response to rising trade tensions between the nations. “It looked like Tesla was riding the wave until it could manufacture cars locally, but the trade war caught up with them," reports the automotive news site Electrek.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration holds science seminars starting.

Coming Up

  • 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

— Lucky duck: Workers at the Interior Department's headquarters in Washington had been watching a mother duck they dubbed the #DOIDuck incubate her eggs since last month. But last week, rats chased off the momma duck and ate eight of her nine eggs, The Post’s Marissa J. Lang reports.

On Monday, the remaining duckling hatched — and found a new home, according to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.