THE LIGHTBULB

One called it “climate chaos.” Another referred to it the “one of the great crises facing our planet.” A third said it may cause “upward of trillions of dollars of damage to U.S. property.”

A trio of senators eyeing a run for president — Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), — took turns to talk in increasingly dramatic terms about global warming during a committee hearing on Wednesday.

Nominally, the hearing was convened to consider the nomination of former coal lobbyist and ex-Senate aide Andrew Wheeler to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. With Republicans firmly in control of the chamber, Democrats have little chance of stopping his bid.

So these Senate Democrats turned the panel into a testing ground for messages on climate change that may later emerge during the 2020 presidential election. The three members of the Environment and Public Works Committee are each thought to be considering a run to challenge President Trump. (A fourth committee member, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), has already announced her candidacy, but did not attend Wednesday's hearing.)

Since taking the helm of the EPA as its acting administrator in July, Andrew Wheeler has become a punching bag for left-leaning environmentalists and their Democratic allies in Congress for continuing to advance regulatory rollbacks started under former EPA chief Scott Pruitt.  In the past six months alone the EPA under Wheeler has proposed relaxing emission limits on power plants and freezing them for automobiles.

The hearing Wednesday was no exception. Sanders, for one, tried to demonstrate his climate bona fides by admonishing Wheeler for addressing global warming only after Democrats brought it up.

“How does it happen that the nominee to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency does not mention the words 'climate change' at a time when the scientific community thinks that climate change is the great environmental crisis facing this planet?” asked Sanders, who in 2016 campaigned for president on a platform of cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by the middle of the century.

Merkley, a potential long-shot candidate for the White House, also pressed Wheeler about how seriously he takes the issue.

After naming industries such as logging, farming and fishing that academics say will be adversely affected by climate change, the senator from Oregon asked: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being you stay awake at night worrying about it and 1 being it occasionally crossing your mind, how concerned are you about this devastating impact?”

“I stay awake at night worrying about a lot of things at the agency,” Wheeler said, before adding: “Eight or nine.”

“Really?” Merkley responded incredulously.

Meanwhile, Booker, a former mayor of Newark who earned a reputation as a technocrat that he may try carrying forward into the 2020 election, homed his line of questioning on analyses from the EPA's own career scientists that found Trump-era regulatory proposals on coal-fired power plants, oil and gas wells, and automobiles would end up increasing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Referring to the agency's plan to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles for six years, Wheeler said: “What my career staff have told me is that it's a slight, incremental increase from what the Obama administration's proposal was.”

Booker took exception to that characterization. “You may call it 'slight,' " the senator said in disagreement.

In the past, climate change and other environmental issues have not figured prominently into presidential races where dinner-table issues such as wages or the cost of health care have ruled the day. 

But under Trump, polling data shows Democrats increasingly view climate change as a top priority, one whose effects they already see in their communities.

The results is that some Democrats in Congress are gravitating toward aggressive policy proposals such as the “Green New Deal” that would expand renewable energy to meet 100 percent of the nation’s electricity needs while creating a federal job-guarantee program.

Among those who have already signaled their support for it are Booker, Merkley and Sanders.

POWER PLAYS

MORE FROM THE WHEELER HEARING:

— Wheeler vowed to continue advancing Trump's deregulatory agenda should he be confirmed, The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report. "Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress,” Wheeler said. “Certainty, and the innovation that thrives in a climate of certainty, are key to progress.”

Protesters interrupted Wheeler's testimony as soon as it began. "One man shouted, 'Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!' Outside, a larger group of activists continued the same chant as Wheeler resumed his remarks."

— Wheeler described how the shutdown was hampering agency rulemaking, including an effort to allow the sale of higher-ethanol gasoline blends year-round. Several Republicans from farming states asked him about the issue Wednesday. “Originally we were planning on issuing the rule in February,” he said. “We haven’t been shut down as long as the other departments but we may be slightly delayed at this point.”

— Another affected area is the agency’s long-awaited plan to regulate a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). “Our PFAS management plan — we were hoping to unveil it next week with the shutdown — it’s going to be delayed slightly,” Wheeler said. When the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), urged Wheeler to commit to setting PFAS limits in drinking water, Wheeler said he “can’t make that commitment because of interagency review.”

— Wheeler also asserted technology in place at power plants to control mercury pollution won’t be removed in response to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) about the agency’s position on mercury standards. “I don’t believe a single piece of mercury control technology will be removed from any power plants, under our preferred option,” Wheeler said. While the EPA has kept Obama-era standards on mercury in place, last year it proposed a major change in the way it calculates the costs and benefits of air pollutants like mercury, a move many public-health advocates see as a dangerous precedent for future rules.

Read more about the hearing here:

Andrew Wheeler has served as the agency’s acting administrator since July. The Senate will decide whether to confirm him as the agency’s next leader.
Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin

SHUTDOWN WATCH

— More staffers back to work without pay: The Agriculture Department will recall about 2,500 furloughed employees in Farm Service Agency offices to work for three days without pay starting Thursday to help with farm loan processing and tax documents amid the ongoing shutdown. “Until Congress sends President Trump an appropriations bill in the form that he will sign, we are doing our best to minimize the impact of the partial federal funding lapse on America’s agricultural producers,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

— Dems take issue with Trump team recalling workers for drilling: House Democrats are calling on the Trump administration to reverse course after recalling furloughed employees to move ahead with plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Chairwoman for the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) called it an “outrageous step" that "make[s] it clear that the administration cares only about the impacts on its favorite industry and not about workers, their families, and ordinary Americans,” the Democrats wrote Wednesday to acting interior secretary David Bernhardt.

— Meanwhile, oil giant chief says there's no big impact on that industry yet: Ryan Lance, the chief executive of ConocoPhillips, told Fox Business Network in an interview that the company’s business hasn’t yet been affected by the ongoing shutdown. “You know, we haven't been major impacted today,” Lance said. “We're still having conversations with the Department of Interior, EPA, the BLM about our longer term permitting and the things we have in front of them as a business. Now, obviously, if this carries on for a longer period of time, we're going to see some slowdown in that activity. Haven't been materially impacted today.”

— The North Pole is moving, but government scientists aren't there to keep up: A jet that formed in the planet’s core led to a shift in the Earth’s magnetic North Pole, The Post’s Sarah Kaplan reports, meaning the “place to which a compass needle points is shifting toward Siberia at a pace of 30 miles a year.” But because of the ongoing shutdown, furloughed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists can’t update the World Magnetic Model, which is used to orient military equipment and the GPS in personal cellphones alike.

— Automakers getting antsy about fuel efficiency standards: U.S. auto executives want the Trump administration to come to an agreement with California on fuel efficiency and carbon emission standards through 2025 as a deadline for such rules approaches. “Automakers are already entering the time frame when decisions should be made about what engines and fuel-saving technology, such as hybrids or fully electric cars, will be in use in 2021 and beyond,” Reuters reports. The Trump administration in August proposed freezing fuel efficiency rules at 2020 levels through 2025. But Sen. Carper said at a Wednesday hearing he “heard that the Trump Administration now plans to finalize a 0.5 percent annual increase in the stringency of the standards — a rate that is 10 times weaker than the current rules," per the report. 

— Major environmental groups withhold signature from Green New Deal letter: There are some notably absent groups in a letter sent by hundreds of environmental groups last week that called on lawmakers to support a Green New Deal, the New Republic reports. Missing from that list of 626 were eight major environmental advocacy organizations — the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Moms Clean Air Force, Environment America, and the Audubon Society, as well as the Climate Reality Project, founded by former vice president Al Gore, and NextGen America, founded by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer. Some groups told the publication that some of the details and language in the letter were cause for concern.

THERMOMETER

— Retreating glaciers means less freshwater worldwide: The Tuyuksu glacier, which is losing ice every day, is a symbol of how global warming is affecting the world’s ice, reports a New York Times team that traveled to Kazakhstan. The mile-and-a-half long glacier, one of the longest-studied glaciers in the world, is getting both shorter and thinner. “What’s happening in the mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan is occurring all over the globe,” the Times writes. “This great global melting contributes to sea level rise. It affects production of hydroelectricity. It leads to disasters like rapid, catastrophic floods and debris flows. It alters rivers and ecosystems, affecting the organisms that inhabit them. But here in the Tien Shan, the biggest impact may be on the supply of water for people and agriculture.”

— Last year was the hottest on record for oceans: The Earth’s oceans had their warmest year in 2018 in a new study from an international team of scientists in yet another report that shows oceans are heating up faster than we previously thought. “The report in the journal Advances in Academic Sciences builds on a study last week that found oceans are warming 40% more, on average, than was estimated by a United Nations scientific panel just five years ago,” the Los Angeles Times reports. “In fact, each of the last 10 years is among the 10 warmest on record, according to data from Lijing Cheng of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing, who led the research.”

— Climate curriculum in Connecticut: A Democratic state lawmaker there has proposed a bill to require climate change be taught starting in elementary school for public schools in the state. If it passes, it would perhaps be the first such mandate written into law in the country, the Associated Press reports. “A lot of schools make the study of climate change an elective, and I don’t believe it should be an elective,” state Rep. Christine Palm told the AP. “I think it should be mandatory, and I think it should be early so there’s no excuse for kids to grow up ignorant of what’s at stake.”

— Hold on to your latte: The changing climate may mean certain varieties of coffee could disappear. British botanist Aaron Davis, who has spent three decades researching the plant, has found in new research that among the 124 coffee species, "60 percent are at risk of extinction in the wild" because of climate change and deforestation, the New York Times reports. "It matters because those wild varieties could be crucial for coffee’s survival in the era of global warming. In those plants could lie the genes that scientists need to develop new varieties that can grow on a hotter, drier planet," per the report.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is scheduled to hold a meeting.
  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry is set to deliver opening remarks at a Bipartisan Policy Center and American Energy Innovation Center event.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Here are your Sunday night plans: This weekend, all 50 states will be able to see the blood-red supermoon in what will be the most widely visible lunar eclipse in the country since October 2014, The Post’s Matthew Cappucci and Angela Fritz report.