THE LIGHTBULB

President Trump said a number of things at his press conference Monday alongside Russian leader Vladimir Putin that few thought a U.S. commander in chief would ever say. Trump refused to affirm the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election. He called the primary probe into that electoral interference, headed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a “disaster for our country.”

Lost amid Trump's many stunning compliments for his Russian counterpart in Helsinki was his refusal to vigorously defend a key geopolitical power play undertaken by his own administration: trying to wean Europe off Russian natural gas.

As part of his “energy dominance” agenda, Trump is seeking to increase U.S. oil and gas production to make the United States a net energy exporter. His administration is eyeing Europe, among other regions, as a potential market for American liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

Part of the impetus for selling fuel to Europe, a policy shared by both the Obama and Trump administrations, is to stifle the influence of Russia in the region. Historically, Russia has been a major source of energy for Europe and, at times, Putin has used the threat of cutting off supplies to impose his will. 

For years, the United States and some Eastern European countries criticized officials in Berlin for pursuing the construction of a new natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Both Republican senators and Trump's own State Department have threatened U.S. sanctions targeting the project, called Nord Stream 2.

When standing alongside Putin at the press conference, however, Trump was surprisingly muted when it came to the pipeline.

“I think that we will be completing when you talk about the pipeline. I'm not sure, necessarily, that it's in the best interests of Germany or not, but that was a decision that they made,” Trump said. “So we're going to be selling LNG, and we'll have to be competing with the pipeline and I think will compete successfully, although there is a little advantage locationally.”

Trump added: “So I just wish them luck.”

Those comments stand in contrast to Trump's tough talk days earlier when Putin was not in the room. During a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, Trump bashed Germany for “being captive to Russia” because of the natural gas imports.

It is a refrain Trump has returned to when choosing to criticize Merkel. “Germany hooks up a pipeline into Russia, where Germany is going to be paying billions of dollars for energy into Russia,” Trump said in April. “And I’m saying, ‘What’s going on with that?’ "

Trump's recent remark to Merkel about the pipeline, which came amid a tirade against NATO allies for not spending enough on the alliance, probably was meant more as a criticism of Europe than of Russia. 

“It looked as if Trump is looking for ammunition against Germany,” said Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “If he would have been serious on pushing against Nord Stream, he would probably have brought this up much more forcefully with Putin.”

As a caveat, Speck added: “It's hard to know what is going on in his mind.”

Right now, much of the natural gas that reaches Western Europe travels by pipeline laid through Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, which fears losing some $2 billion annually in transit fees from Russia if Nord Stream 2 goes online in addition to leverage it holds over its formidable neighbor by hosting its pipeline. 

Edoardo Saravalle, an energy and economics researcher at the Center for a New American Security, said that while Nord Stream 2 is not an “immediate threat” to the United States or the European Union, “the pipeline could serve as a latent threat over the alliance and the E.U., one more card Russia could play in a moment of tension,” he said.

For Ukraine, Russia's energy bullying is more than just a threat. Russia has cut off Ukraine’s gas supplies several times in a bid to draw the former Soviet republic away from the West, including in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.

A "somewhat bigger issue" than Nord Stream 2, according to David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego, "is that the extra revenues [are] flowing back to Russia" while the Russian state engages in mischief.

The new pipeline would follow the path of the original Nord Stream, built in 2011 directly between Russian and Germany beneath the Baltic Sea. The new pipeline would double the capacity of Russian gas to reach through that underwater route that goes around Eastern Europe.

Under Trump and President Obama, the United States is looking to ship natural gas to Europe to help supplant fuel from Russia. Just last year, the United States shipped its first tanker full of liquefied natural gas from Louisiana to Poland.

POWER PLAYS

— That time plutonium was stolen from the back seat of a rental car: Last March, dangerous nuclear materials were stolen out of a car parked at a Marriott hotel near San Antonio. Two security experts had driven from the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory to retrieve the plutonium and cesium, the San Antonio Express News and the Center for Public Integrity report. Overnight, someone smashed into their car window and the nuclear ingredients were stolen. More than a year later, state and federal officials still don’t know where those materials are. “No public announcement of the March 21 incident has been made by either the San Antonio police or by the FBI” per the report. “When asked, officials at the lab and in San Antonio declined to say exactly how much plutonium and cesium were missing." But the Idaho lab, however, said the amount of plutonium missing was not enough to make a nuclear bomb.

— “What anyone with eyes and ears already knew”: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is calling on the Justice Department to investigate stock trades made by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Last week, the Office of Government Ethics chided Ross over his failure to divest in a timely manner from investments in Russia-connected Navigator Holdings, a shipping company whose clients include a Russian energy firm, per The Post’s Steven Mufson. “The top federal ethics watchdog confirmed what anyone with eyes and ears already knew: Wilbur Ross’s stock trades seriously compromised his ability to act in America’s best interests, and may have broken the law,” Wyden wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

— Stockpiles sent away from Puerto Rico days before hurricane: Just days before Hurricane Maria hit the island, a warehouse full of supplies was emptied and sent to the U.S. Virgin Islands after that territory was struck by Hurricane Irma. A report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicates the agency emptied 90 percent of the bottled water, 61 percent of the meals and all of the tarps and cots from the warehouse five days before Maria hit, Bloomberg News reports. After the storm, Puerto Rico closed its ports and the supplies had no way of being returned, according to FEMA's "After-Action Report."

— On Monday, 119 House Democrats geared up for the next big environmental fight in Congress by writing in opposition to a number of riders on a defense reauthorization bill that "would cause irreparable harm to our wildlife and public lands." Among the provisions are ones prohibiting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing as endangered the sage-grouse and lesser prairie chicken for the next decade.

THERMOMETER

— California is burning... A wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park doubled since over the weekend to more than 9,000 acres by Monday morning, and the U.S. Forest Service said the blaze was just 2 percent contained, the Los Angeles Times reports. Power lines were switched off in the area. A 36-year-old bulldozer operator who served in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was killed Saturday while trying to contain the so-called Ferguson fire. The Associated Press reports the fire had caused a key route nearby to be closed and nearby communities outside the park were under an evacuation order.

...Colorado, Missouri and Georgia are flooded... From the Southeast to the Mountain West, flash floods inundated many parts of the United States over the weekend following rain, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports, part of a pattern of rampant flooding that has hit the country since the spring.

...and in Hawaii, it's raining lava: "A volcanic explosion injured more than 20 people who were on a sightseeing boat to watch lava flowing from Hawaii’s active volcano into the ocean," The Post's Eli Rosenberg reports. "The boat was off the island’s eastern coast on Monday morning when the volcano sent what officials said was a basketball-sized “lava bomb” through the boat’s canopy and peppered it with volcanic debris."

Meanwhile, lava is still flowing from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island and CNN reports on Thursday, a small island of lava was formed offshore, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The USGS said the island could connect to the current coastline if the lava flow continues, or it could erode because of the water.

OIL CHECK

— “We will not serve or pay for meat”: WeWork, the network of shared office spaces, told employees last week that it will become a meat-free organization. Co-founder and chief culture officer Miguel McKelvey told The Post’s Jena McGregor the move was a way to make the company more environmentally conscious. “In the letter to employees, McKelvey pointed to research showing that avoiding meat has an environmental impact that could outweigh the use of a hybrid car, suggesting WeWork could save an estimated 16.7 billion gallons of water, 445.1 million pounds of CO2 emissions and more than 15 million animals by 2023 by eliminating meat at company events,” McGregor reports.

— “This thing is unraveling”: Tesla chief Elon Musk’s latest Twitter rant has rattled the electric automaker’s investors, just days after its fourth-largest shareholder called for a “time of quiet and piece,” The Post’s Drew Harwell reports. Musk had blasted a British cave explorer on Twitter, calling him pedophile. And on Monday, the company’s shares dropped 3 percent “extending a losing streak for a company that was only weeks ago America’s most valuable automaker, worth more than General Motors,” Harwell writes.

“Tesla stock has plunged more than 16 percent since last month, shaving billions of dollars off the company’s market value at a time when it still depends on investor cash and confidence,” he adds. “The company lost $2 billion last year and has never earned an annual profit. Even Musk’s shareholders and supporters are beginning to question how his temper could affect the company he built, and their bottom line.” A managing director of a New York-based investment research group added: “This thing is unraveling.”  

— Solar-powered Sin City: The Gemini solar project from Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners could provide power to parts of the Las Vegas Strip as well as other areas in Nevada, California and Arizona. The $1 billion, 44,000-acre solar project, which would be built northeast of downtown Las Vegas, could be up and running as soon as 2020, Bloomberg News reports. “Quinbrook, with U.S. headquarters in Houston, said an environmental review is expected to be completed next year, with construction slated to begin in the third quarter of 2019,” per the report.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing to examine the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to “examine the Department of the Interior’s final list of critical minerals.”
  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment holds a hearing on tribal energy resources. 

Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “The Role of Energy Storage in the Nation’s Electricity System" on Wednesday.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management holds a hearing on “Recovering from 2017 Disasters and Preparing for the 2018 Hurricane Season” on Wednesday.   
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Watch this California blaze ignite a fire tornado over a lake: