The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump's EPA is targeting rules for yet another greenhouse gas

with Paulina Firozi


First it was carbon dioxide, when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in August relaxing pollution standards for coal-fired power plants meant to curb emissions of that most common greenhouse gas. 

Then it was methane, when both the EPA and Interior Department each took steps in recent weeks toward replacing Obama-era rules regulating the leaking of that climate-warming gas from oil and natural gas infrastructure.

Now, the Trump administration is trying to replace regulations for an even more obscure set of greenhouse gases in an effort apparently aimed at slowing down the Obama administration's efforts to deter global warming.

On Wednesday, the EPA announced it wanted to get rid of rules meant to prevent the leaking and venting of a set of organic compounds called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, from large refrigerating and air-conditioning units.

The new rule, which has yet to be finalized, is the latest in a flurry of EPA proposals over the past month or so further attempting to unwind Obama's climate legacy. The actions — on CO2, on methane and now on HFCs — demonstrate the agency still has much of the same attitude toward climate regulations under acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, who took over the agency in July, as it did under former EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

In the case of HFCs, even tiny amounts leached into the atmosphere pack a wallop of a punch to the climate. On a pound-for-pound basis, those compounds have a warming potential thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

“This is climate vandalism,” contended David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They're just going through all these things that Obama did and trying to destroy them all.” 

Some Democrats held up the proposal as yet more evidence the Trump administration is unwilling to do even the bare minimum to address climate change.

“Unfortunately, this action is yet another reminder the Trump Administration isn’t willing to take even the smallest step to address climate change or protect Americans from the threats of extreme weather,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Environmental and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

If the new rule goes through, large commercial and industrial appliances using HFCs will no longer need to conduct certain leak rate calculations and make repairs when the machines are letting off too much of the gas. Facilities such as supermarkets, ice rinks and factories, which use such units, will also no longer need to report to the EPA on chronic leaking problems or retire units that are not fixed.

Like with most of Trump-era decisions, the EPA justified the new rule by pointing out the benefit to businesses if it is finalized. The agency said its new rule would save companies $39 million annually in regulatory costs. 

But the cost of the rule could be borne by the rest of society in the form of higher temperatures later on. If enacted, the estimated annual leakage would have an effect on the climate equal to that of an additional 642,000 passenger cars on the road per year. 

Not all companies are on board with Obama-era efforts regulating the chemicals. In particular, makers of chemical alternatives to HFCs, Honeywell and Chemours, have petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse a ruling on another set of HFC regulations on manufacturers of air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a court one step below the Supreme Court, struck down those rules. The opinion was written by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is now President Trump's nominee for the high court.

The decision was classic Kavanaugh. Throughout his time on what many call the second-most important court in the country, the judge consistently gave more regulatory power to federal bureaucrats only when Congress clearly spelled out in the law that that is what it wanted.

“EPA’s well-intentioned policy objectives with respect to climate change do not on their own authorize the agency to regulate,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The agency must have statutory authority for the regulations it wants to issue.”


— Hurricane Maria, one year later: Thursday was the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria's landfall on Puerto Rico. Here are two takes worth reading;

  • The Atlantic explores the questions Puerto Rico is grappling with after Maria. “What have we learned since Hurricane Maria? Most of the attention in the past few weeks has been focused on how to quantify the damage done by the storm and its aftermath,” per the report. “But the responsibility for Maria’s aftermath doesn’t just rest with the federal government, either… The fact is that last year, Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck an island that was uniquely fragile, in political and financial turmoil, and probably in the worst shape possible for a major disaster.”
  • This New York Times interactive describes an island that in places looks like the hurricane had just hit, based on visits to 163 homes in two neighborhoods. In Punta Santiago, the Times “found a community with signs of fresh paint and, in some of the middle-class parts of town, rebuilt rooms and new furniture… But in neighborhoods where residents live on meager pensions and disability checks, there were gutted kitchens and electrical wires running randomly along unfinished walls. Roofs were covered with plywood or plastic, many near collapse. Some houses still had no running water.” 

An opportunity for statehood: Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló used the anniversary to re-up his call to make the U.S. territory a state. “The case has essentially been made to the world in the aftermath of Maria,” Rosselló said during an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “The truth of the matter is we’ve been treated like second-class citizens… It’s time for decision-makers to put up or shut up and state if they will welcome Puerto Rico as the 51st state, if they will do what’s in their power to make it happen, or if they will reject the right side of history."

— And Hurricane Florence, now: Here's more on the aftermath of the most recent hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland.

  • Duke Energy activated a high-level emergency alert for state regulators — "Urgent! Dam failure is imminent or in progress" — for a retired coal power plant in North Carolina after a nearby river overtook an embankment and inundated a lake near three toxic coal-ash dumps, the Associated Press reports. However, a Duke Energy spokeswoman told the AP the dam containing Sutton Lake, a former cooling pond, "appeared stable" and was being monitored "with helicopters and drones."
  • Before Florence hit, officials in Lumberton, N.C. made a desperate attempt to construct a temporary sandbag bank across railroad tracks to fill a gap in the city’s levee system as they tried to prevent getting inundated by floodwaters. City officials requested permission from CSX Corp., one of the country’s largest railroad companies, but the company refused, and threatened to retaliate with legal action, HuffPost reports. Gov. Roy Cooper (D) eventually issued an emergency order to allow the berm to be constructed. “I am sure that the last-minute efforts that were made bought time and saved some lives and property, but if CSX had been cooperative, we could have done so much more sooner,” Stephen McIntyre, a local attorney, told the publication.
  • In total, nearly 9 trillion gallons of water fell over North Carolina during Florence. The deluge “utterly changed the landscape, especially in the southeast part of the state,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.

— At this rate, Earth risks sea level rise of 20 to 30 feet: A vast part of the East Antarctic ice sheet melted in Earth’s past when the planet’s temperatures were not that much warmer than they are now, according to a historical analysis released Wednesday. And scientists behind the research warn sea levels were as much as 20 or 30 feet higher than they are, a reality that can emerge again if temperatures continue to rise at the current rate, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. “What the new science adds is that during past warm periods in Earth’s history, some or all of the ice in the Wilkes Subglacial Basin seems to have gone away,” Mooney explains, adding “we are already on a course that could heat the planet enough to melt some or all of the Wilkes Basin.”


— Golfing trumps canoeing: Paddlers who use the Potomac River in the area near Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va. have filed a lawsuit against the Coast Guard to reverse a policy that closes off a two-mile stretch of the river when the president hits his own links. Last summer, the Coast Guard initiated a policy to create a security perimeter when Trump is at the golf course. “Democracy Forward, a nonprofit formed last year that focuses on executive branch actions, is representing the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington DC, which is based in Montgomery County,” The Post’s Jenna Portnoy reports. “The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Maryland, Southern Division, says Trump has made more than three dozen visits to the golf club since the rule was put in place."

— A new gig for the EPA's inspector general: Arthur A. Elkins, who announced Tuesday he will retire from federal government, will take on the role of inspector general at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), Maryland's largest water utility. WSSC announced the news on its website this week.


— "Massive" spike in oil smuggling is easing economic pressure on North Korea: Over the spring and summer, U.S. and East Asian intelligence officials tracked a large amount of oil-smuggling runs in North Korea that appears to have contributed to stabilizing its economy. By late August, the agencies had “counted 148 of these secret maritime transfers — for a total of between 800,000 and 1.4 million barrels of oil, gasoline and diesel,” The Post’s Joby Warrick and Simon Denyer report. "The flurry of activity is coinciding with what intelligence officials described as a steady erosion in sanctions enforcement in the region,” Warrick and Denyer write. “With tensions on the Korean Peninsula cooling — and with a U.S.-China economic cold war looming — Russia and China have shown little enthusiasm for cracking down on the profiteers who are helping supply crucial fuel for Pyongyang’s vehicles and factories.”

— The last straw: California is at the forefront of another initiative. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the first state law in the nation prohibiting dine-in restaurants from giving customers plastic straws unless they explicitly request them. “The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, exempts fast-food restaurants and provides full-service restaurants with a written warning on the first two violations and a fine of $25 a day for subsequent infractions,” the Los Angeles Times reports

— Oil watch: Oil prices eased Thursday after Trump called on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to “get prices down now!” on Twitter. OPEC and other producers, including nonmember Russia, are set to meet Sunday in Algeria "to discuss how to allocate supply increases to offset the loss of Iranian barrels” following U.S. sanctions there, Reuters reports. “The meeting is unlikely to agree to an official rise in crude output, although pressure is mounting to prevent a spike in prices.”

— U.S. oil companies joins climate coalition: ExxonMobil, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum said Thursday they will join a corporate climate coalition that will work toward achieving standards set by the Paris climate agreement. “Founded in 2014, the coalition now includes 13 of the largest oil and natural gas companies representing 30 percent of the world's oil and natural gas production,” per the Dallas Morning News. Until this week, the coalition did not yet have any U.S.-based companies.



  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on a fuel cell company in Delaware.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the Energy Department’s efforts in the field of quantum information science on Sept. 25.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on DOE Modernization on Sept. 27.

— Polluted floodwaters: This satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows how water from the Carolinas, polluted with storm debris, is making it way into the Atlantic in the days after Florence.