THE LIGHTBULB

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is supposed to step in to provide aid to Americans whose lives and livelihoods are upended by disaster.

So why is FEMA itself instead asking for money from victims after historic wildfires torched California?

Those who fled the fires are at a standoff with the agency that provided them relief over how to divide a pool of money set aside by the power utility that went bankrupt after the blazes.

And if FEMA can’t get the money from that bankruptcy fund, the agency suggested it may have to bill fire victims themselves.

The financial tug-of-war may be just a prelude to the coming challenge that corporations, government agencies and everyday Americans will face when trying to pay for the escalating costs of climate change. 

FEMA says Pacific Gas & Electric owes the federal government $3.9 billion for its response to a string of devastating fire seasons in California since 2015. Climate change is fueling more intense wildfires in California as the state sees stronger winds, less rainfall and drier conditions. The state had its worst fire season on record in 2018, when wildfires scorched more than 1.8 million acres there — an area larger than the size of Delaware. 

But the families of those trying to rebuild their lives after the blazes say the federal government is trying to raid a $13.5 billion victims' fund approved by a bankruptcy judge last month. The money was set aside by PG&E to compensate the victims of fires that the utility’s aging power poles, wires and other equipment helped spark.

“The fire victims in California have been through hell, and they finally have a settlement that provides a measure of compensation to them,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D), whose Northern California district was ravaged by the Mendocino Complex fire, California's largest on record, in 2018. 

“I hate to see that compromise even further diluted, if not blown up, by FEMA parachuting into the mix and trying to take the money,” added Huffman, who led a group of more than three dozen California House members in writing a letter to FEMA chief Peter T. Gaynor in opposition to the decision.

FEMA insists it is legally obligated on behalf of taxpayers to pursue the money from PG&E. The agency said the federal government was excluded from negotiations between California residents and PG&E leading to the $13.5 billion settlement reached last month.

Perhaps most notably, Bob Fenton, FEMA's regional administrator for California, warned the agency would ask fire victims to return money if they receive a "duplication of benefits" — that is, get paid out by both FEMA and PG&E.

“If a survivor receives a settlement from PG&E for the same disaster losses or expenses that were previously met through disaster assistance, that would be a duplication of benefits," he said. "In that case, the survivor would be asked to return the disaster assistance to FEMA,"

Michael Carlson, a California wine executive and member of a panel appointed to represent fire victims filing claims in the PG&E bankruptcy, says the threat is only causing “more pain to those who are already in an awful situation.”

The decision ultimately lies with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali, though Huffman also hopes to persuade FEMA to drop the issue.

“I don't fault FEMA for seeking reimbursement,” Huffman said. “It's really their targeting of this victims fund that is outrageous.” 

He added that “if FEMA somehow succeeds in blowing up this victim settlement fund,” Congress would have to look at passing a law to fix the problem.

PG&E's Chapter 11 filing has been called the nation's “first climate change bankruptcy," as The Post's Steven Mufson reported in his profile on the power utility.

But it may not be the last among electric utilities. As wildfires become more destructive, power companies are “increasingly exposed to threats stemming from hurricanes, rising sea levels, and other climate-related events,” according to a report by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

POWER PLAYS

— The world just experienced its hottest decade ever: New data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that an acceleration of temperature increases in the past five years made the 2010s the hottest decade ever recorded on Earth, The Post’s Brady Dennis, Andrew Freedman and John Muyskens report. And humans are to blame, scientists say, in part because of the tens of billions of tons of carbon emitted annually because of human activity. 

  • The details: Last year capped the hottest decade and also marked the second-warmest year on record, trailing 2016. Nineteen of the hottest 20 years ever were in the past two decades. The last five years were each among the five hottest ever recorded. “According to NOAA, the globe is warming at a faster rate than it had been just a few decades ago. The annual global average surface temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.07 degrees Celsius (0.13 Fahrenheit) per decade since 1880, NOAA found. However, since 1981, that rate has more than doubled since,” The Post team adds.
  • Key quote: “No individual hot year — or hot day or hot season, for that matter is by itself evidence for climate change. But this hot year is just one of many hot years in this decade,” Kate Marvel, a research scientist at NASA and Columbia University, told The Post. “The planet is statistically, detectably warmer than before the Industrial Revolution. We know why. We know what it means. And we can do something about it.”

— Bloomberg wants new buildings to be carbon free: Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg released his latest climate proposal to tackle energy efficiency in buildings. By 2025, he wants all new buildings — a sector responsible for 12 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions — to meet zero-carbon emissions and be powered by electric utilities, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports.

  • By comparison: “The latest piece of the Bloomberg climate policy comes as climate change has become a controversial portion of the campaigns of other candidates,” Mufson adds. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wants buildings to be zero-carbon by 2028 and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to end fossil fuel use in buildings by 2030, for example.

 — White House to impose requirements on aid for Puerto Rico: The White House has been working for months to impose new restrictions on about $8 billion in disaster aid that has been approved for the U.S. territory, The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Jeff Stein report. Among other restrictions, the Trump administration wants to impose a restriction on pay for contractors working on disaster relief to less than $15 an hour, despite an executive order mandating the rate. 

  • The help comes, but it comes one drop at a time”: “Puerto Rico’s central government estimated that the earthquakes caused $110 million in damages to at least five different municipalities, but local mayors are confident that number will balloon as there are continuing temblors and damage assessments are underway. Many communities are still waiting for money promised after Hurricane Maria, such as in Ponce, where the municipal government is hoping for funds for hundreds of sites needing reconstruction, including roads, storm water management systems and other public works projects. So far, just three have received approval.”

— Climate references in Forest Service memo, scrubbed: An internal U.S. Forest Service memo shows that an agency deputy ordered field staff to remove references to climate change and greenhouse gases in the notice for an environmental impact statement related to a Trump administration proposal. The memo, obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity, shows the change  related to the proposal to open national forests and grasslands in Texas to oil and gas development, E&E News reports. Both versions appeared in the Federal Register. 

  • Why it matters: “By removing references to climate change, the Center for Biological Diversity said, the Forest Service censored its own staff and showed a willingness to interfere with scientists' environmental reviews. The organization obtained the email and other documents through the Freedom of Information Act, after the dual notices piqued staff members' curiosity, the CBD said.”
  • What the agency says: In a statement, the Forest Service said: “The request was editorial in nature and does not reflect any policy on use of terminology or any policy regarding emissions associated with oil and gas development or climate.”

— The United States is losing its dominance in science and engineering: A new federal report points to numerous hurdles that have contributed to the nation’s fall from its position as a world leader in these fields. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics report is based on research expenditures, journal articles, the scientific workforce and education data, The Post’s Ben Guarino writes.

  • The details: “In 2017, the United States spent $548 billion on research and development. That’s more than any other country,” Guarino reports. “…But, on the global stage, the U.S. share in R&D has been shrinking while the world’s total swelled to more than $2 trillion — an overall tripling of investments between 2000 and 2017. In 2000, nearly 40 cents of each dollar used for R&D was spent in the United States. By 2017, the U.S. portion was down to 25 cents.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing to consider the nomination of Charles A. Williams to be the Assistant Secretary Of The Navy For Energy, Installations, And Environment. 

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Watch this cat fight off three coyotes: Max, an 8-year-old rescue cat, stepped outside of his Los Angeles home last week and was met with three coyotes. “What the coyotes didn’t know was that Max is a seasoned street life veteran. He survived alone in Long Beach before being adopted by his current family nearly four years ago, Maya Gurrin, his human, told The Washington Post,” as The Post’s Lateshia Beachum writes.