THE LIGHTBULB

During his confirmation hearing, the Environmental Protection Agency's acting administrator Andrew Wheeler touted the "environmental benefits" from the agency's law enforcement actions against polluters last year.

But a new analysis of EPA data by an old Barack Obama administration official tells a different story. It shows that civil penalties for polluters dropped dramatically during the first two years of President Trump's administration. 

During the last fiscal year, civil penalties fell to roughly $72 million, according to an analysis from Cynthia Giles, who headed EPA's enforcement office under Obama and is now a guest fellow at the Harvard Environmental and Energy Law Program.

It's the lowest level in inflation-adjusted dollars since the agency’s enforcement office was formed in 1994, The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. By contrast, EPA penalties for polluters for the past two decades averaged more than $500 million a year -- making it an 85 percent drop under Trump. 

And the amount of money companies had to pay to come into compliance with federal environmental laws fell as well, down to nearly $5.6 billion in the last fiscal year. When adjusted for inflation, that represents the lowest amount of injunctive relief since 2003.

Giles told Eilperin and Dennis the drop in fines during the first full fiscal year of the Trump administration was particularly striking because 97 percent of the penalties levied in fiscal year 2017 stemmed from consent decrees signed and filed under Obama.

“It tells me that they are backing away from doing biggest, highest impact cases,” Giles said, “and those are the most important for protecting public health, and they’re the cases the states can’t or won’t do.”

Her findings are in line with other analyses from environmental and governance groups indicating a decline in enforcement at the EPA under Trump.

During his hearing in the Senate earlier this month, Wheeler pushed back against those reports, saying they contained “a lot of misleading information."

Wheeler pointed out that EPA had opened more criminal enforcement cases during 2018 than the year before. And he said enforcement actions last year resulted in removing “809 million pounds of pollution and waste” from the environment.

Wheeler emphasized the different approach he said his EPA is taking by working with companies it oversees to ensure they comply with federal rules, rather than levying charges or imposing fines. “The more compliance assurance that we have," he said, "the fewer enforcement actions we need to take."

Yet EPA watchers within the federal government are still concerned. The Government Accountability Office is investigating how the agency’s law enforcement duties are changing and whether it has adequate staff to execute them. According to GAO spokesman Charles Young, the inquiry began in October and will likely be completed this fall.

And Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the agency’s enforcement numbers “abysmal.”

“The troubling lack of enforcement not only threatens the water we drink and the air we breathe, but also sends a dangerous message to polluters that EPA will continue to turn a blind eye,” he said.

Current and former EPA officials said that a loss of staff within the enforcement office during the past two years has affected the agency’s ability to pursue polluters — and that was before the partial federal shutdown sidelined the vast majority of the agency’s inspectors and compliance experts.

And while the Criminal Investigation Division opened a slightly higher number of cases last fiscal year, according to one federal official who was not authorized to speak publicly, the number of defendants charged and total amount of criminal fines declined.

Despite the criticism from Democrats and environmental groups over the reduction in cases and fines against polluters, the EPA also has won praise from some corners for its emphasis on compliance rather than punishment.

“I’ve seen some stories in the press that EPA enforcement cases have fallen,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at Wheeler’s confirmation hearing. “In my opinion, how many enforcement cases are filed isn’t the best metric to measure the EPA’s successes. Our goal should be to actually make sure people are following the law in the first place.”

Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

POWER PLAYS

SHUTDOWN WATCH

— White House prepares for shutdown to continue: White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has requested information from agency leaders on what high-impact programs would be at risk if the impasse continues into March or even April, The Post’s Damian Paletta and Juliet Eilperin report. “And there were new signs on Wednesday that federal agencies are still trying to comprehend the scope of their growing problems,” they write. “The U.S. General Services Administration, an agency that manages many of the government’s leases and contracts, notified a number of departments that it doesn’t have a plan for how it can pay utility and lease payments in February if the shutdown persists." 

Here’s who is and isn’t working: There are about 800,000 federal employees who have been furloughed or are working without pay. The definition of “essential” employee has expanded since the beginning of the shutdown, and thousands of employees who were furloughed were called back to work. “While the administration has come up with pots of cash from unused accounts or fee revenue to at least temporarily fund paychecks for workers at agencies that include the Food and Drug Administration and the State, Interior and Agriculture departments, critics say the administration lacks legal authority to force so many others to work without pay,” The Post’s Lisa Rein and Reuben Fischer-Baum report. Their report includes a graphic detailing how many are working in major departments and agencies, including at the Interior Department, where 6,000 are working with pay, 6,000 without pay and 58,000 are not working.

Telescopes power down: Massive telescopes and observatories could be forced into standby mode if the impasse drags into mid-February, The Post’s Ben Guarino and Carolyn Y. Johnson report. The shutdown will affect research projects that use the telescopes and will result in the furloughing of hundreds of workers who, because they’re contractors, are not guaranteed back pay. “Our prediction is the first time the monthly paychecks don’t come, we’ll see our staff getting jobs elsewhere,” said National Radio Astronomy Observatory director Tony Beasley. “For highly trained, specialized staff, it will be straightforward for most of them to get jobs in industry — and take us three years to rebuild. It gets weird and difficult really fast.”

Climate data page down: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate data website has been taken down. The website for the National Climatic Data Center, which in part provides access to weather model forecast data, now takes visitors to a page that reads “Access is not available at this due to a lapse in appropriation,” The Hill reports. The page adds: “NOAA.gov and specific NOAA websites necessary to protect lives and property are operational and will be maintained during this partial closure of the U.S. Government.” “A number of the NOAA websites are not maintained during the lapse in appropriations and are redirected to the page you reference,” a NOAA spokesperson told The Hill. “I am unable to comment on the number of pages across the agency that are currently redirected."

Marine mammal rescue groups hampered, too: A network of groups that works with NOAA to respond to distressed marine mammals such as whales and seals have been affected by the impasse, the Associated Press reports, as the shutdown means NOAA has halted operations the rescue groups rely on. “NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies,” per the report.

— “We must invite more disruptive innovations”: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew a contrast with President Trump without mentioning the U.S. president by name during a speech at the annual World Economic Forum, calling for free trade and climate action amid other calls to the global leaders at the conference. Abe urged global leaders to aim for zero net carbon emissions by around 2050 and called for green technologies such as carbon capture to work toward such a goal, The Post’s Heather Long reports. “Spending money on a green Earth and a blue ocean — once deemed costly — is now a growth generator,” Abe said. “We must invite more disruptive innovations before it’s too late.”

— Pipeline power play: In the latest move by the administration to bolster pipeline companies, the White House is considering a round of executive orders that would include weakening the authority states have to block energy projects and making it easier for new pipelines to be constructed, Politico reports. The move is also part of an effort to signal dominance against Russia and part of Trump’s effort to prove “he isn’t a pawn of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” per the report. One of the orders the White House is considering would “involve changing Obama-era draft guidance for complying with a section of the Clean Water” in order to restrain mostly Democratic governors. The administrations’ latest energy effort is still being finalized.

— Trump administration considering imposing new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector: The sanctions could include restrictions or a ban entirely on U.S. imports of oil, Reuters reports, as a way to “punish President Nicolas Maduro’s government” amid a volatile political situation in the country. Trump on Wednesday recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the nation’s interim president amid massive anti-Maduro protests in Venezuela.

Russ Dallen, a Florida-based managing partner at the brokerage Caracas Capital Markets, told The Post the Trump administration has advised U.S.-based refineries of possible oil sanctions, “a move that would not damage the U.S. oil sector nearly as much as it would have years ago,” The Post’s Mariana Zuñiga, Anthony Faiola and Carol Morello report. “Venezuela’s oil production has collapsed under Maduro; it currently sells about 500,000 barrels per day to the United States, or about half the volume of a decade ago.”

—2020 watch: A spokesperson for Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told Axios this week she supports the “concept” of the Green New Deal. Gillibrand "has been working for years on policies to aggressively combat climate change, protect our environment and create a green economy in communities that have often been left behind," spokesperson Whitney Brennan told the publication. It’s an expression of tepid support nonetheless from a presidential hopeful for the ambitious plan that aims to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.

THERMOMETER

— Study finds warming climate = plants absorb less carbon dioxide: While plants and soil currently absorb about a fourth of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, a new study found plants may start to absorb less with continued global warming, the New York Times reports. “When the soil is dry, plants are stressed and can’t absorb as much CO₂ to perform photosynthesis. At the same time, because dry conditions are often accompanied by warm temperatures, microorganisms in the soil, which are more productive when it’s warm, release more CO₂,” the Times reports. “Even when a drought year is followed by a year as wet as the previous one was dry, it is not enough to compensate for the dry year, the researchers found.”

OIL CHECK

—  Racketeering claims against Greenpeace dismissed: A U.S. judge dismissed the most serious claims in a Canadian logging company’s lawsuit accusing Greenpeace and another advocacy group of racketeering. Resolute Forest Products invoked the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO Act, in a lawsuit after the environmental groups launched a campaign against the company for harvesting trees in Canada’s boreal forests. “While U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar dismissed the racketeering claims, he also ruled that defamation and unfair competition claims against Greenpeace could continue,” Inside Climate News reports. The claims against the other group, Stand.earth, were dropped.

— PG&E’s wildfire woes: As PG&E plans to file for bankruptcy protection, NextEra Energy Inc, the world’s largest wind and solar firm, is calling on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to intervene and rule that PG&E can’t “abrogate, amend or reject” its wholesale power-purchase agreements. NextEra wants FERC’s ruling by Friday in an effort to protect its power contracts with PG&E, Bloomberg reports. “As PG&E lurches toward bankruptcy, its power contracts are emerging as a contentious issue,” per the report. “The question is whether a bankruptcy judge could reset those deals with prices more in line with current numbers.”

— The road ahead for Tesla: The automaker is reducing production of some of its expensive vehicles, including its Model S sedans and Model X SUV, “fueling concern over the company’s ability to survive without making as many of the top-dollar cars that helped it become a household name,” The Post’s Drew Harwell reports. “The drawdown will help shift Tesla’s production away from the more profitable luxury cars that helped it upend the auto industry and further toward its cheaper Model 3, which the company has long promised would be key to attracting a mass-market audience … The company last week laid off roughly 7 percent of its full-time employees and all but its ‘most critical (temporary workers) and contractors,’ Musk said in a company email.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy is scheduled to hold a call on energy efficiency and resiliency.
  • The United States Energy Association holds its annual State of the Energy Industry Forum.

Coming Up

  • The World Resources Institute is scheduled to hold an event on driving equitable climate transitions on Jan. 31.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— [Record scratch sound]: A giant disk of ice that had been spinning in the Presumpscot River west of Portland, Maine has stopped rotating, The Post’s Matthew Cappucci and Angela Fritz report.