with Paulina Firozi

THE LIGHTBULB

By Steven Mufson and Dino Grandoni 

In a divided Congress that has trouble passing anything, can energy policy be an exception? 

The Senate is preparing to vote this week on a major piece of legislation designed to move the country toward using cleaner sources of energy. The sprawling bill binds together about 50 energy-related proposals and would touch nearly every part of the nation's energy sector.

But critics are already calling the package a hodgepodge of modest steps at a time when the planet is careening toward dangerous levels of warming and more ambitious legislation is needed to wean the world's biggest economy off polluting fossil fuels.

Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, introduced the 555-page measure Thursday with the hope of winning over the support of both Republicans and Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), eager to bring it to the floor, signaled a vote could happen as early as this week. 

The bill, dubbed the American Energy Innovation Act, isn’t specifically about climate change. The word “climate” appears only once in a two-page summary of the bill. But it does support some ways of slowing down the release of heat-trapping emissions.

Manchin said the legislation would “make a down payment on emissions-reducing technologies, reassert the United States’ leadership role in global markets, enhance our grid security, and protect consumers.”

Murkowski said in a statement that the bill was “our best chance to modernize our nation’s energy policies in more than 12 years.” She said that “we can promote a range of emerging technologies that will help keep energy affordable even as it becomes cleaner and cleaner.”

The measure comes as congressional Republicans have started to gingerly reposition themselves on the issue of climate change, with many of them acknowledging that it is real and exacerbated by mankind. But most GOP lawmakers and President Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax,” are still shying away from addressing climate change head on. 

The Murkowski-Manchin bill would tackle greenhouse gas emissions from different angles. 

It would mandate greater energy efficiency in federal buildings, offer rebates for consumers who buy more efficient motors for home appliances, extend for 15 years incentives for hydroelectric power, and put money toward research for wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as advanced batteries.

With regard to nuclear energy, which produces half the nation's carbon-free power, the legislation would accommodate licensing light-water reactors and provide money for new nuclear technologies. 

And the package also establishes a study for technology using coal and natural gas, and funds techniques for capturing carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, and using it in industrial processes.

The bill has the backing of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s global energy institute, which urged the Senate to pass the bill “without delay.” Yet it was met with mixed reaction from environmentalists, complicating how Democrats will ultimately vote on the measure.

The Environmental Defense Fund praised the package for taking “useful steps” to tackle climate change. “At a time of increasing polarization in Washington, bipartisan leadership on climate is all the more crucial,” said Elizabeth Gore, the group's senior vice president for political affairs.

But Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the bill does too little to slash the use of fossil fuels when U.N. scientists say the world needs to drastically slash emissions over the next decade to forestall dangerous warming. “This gargantuan bill does little to address the climate crisis,” she said.

Another controversial part of the bill concerns mining. 

The bill would require the federal government to designate a list of critical minerals and encourage it to “complete federal permits efficiently.” 

Murkowski has long warned that the country relies too heavily on foreign nations, such as China, for importing minerals vital for making car batteries, digital camera lenses and other high-tech devices. The United States imports at least 50 percent of 46 minerals, including widely known metals such as tin and zinc and more exotic elements such as rare-earth elements.

But some environmentalists worry the bill would pave the way for more domestic mining without properly taking the environmental ramifications into account. The Sierra Club's Melinda Pierce called the mining provision one of the bill's “egregious nonstarters.”

It's unclear what chance any energy bill that emerges from the Senate stands of being taken up by the Democratic leaders in the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) office declined to comment. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats plan to push Republicans to include amendments to extend tax breaks for wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, and to beef up building codes to make new homes and businesses more energy efficient.

“Senate Republicans who claim to want to do something about climate change face a big test next week,” Schumer said Friday. “Will they join Senate Democrats in fighting for and passing bipartisan provisions that will address climate change in a significant way, or will they continue to do Big Oil’s bidding and block any progress?” 

POWER PLAYS

— Major oil and gas conference cancelled due to cororavirus: CERAWeek, a conference that was scheduled to begin in Houston next Monday, was canceled over concerns about the ongoing coronavirus spread. IHS Markit, the company behind the conference, cited the growing number of such conferences being canceled, as well as travel bans and restrictions. The company said delegates from more than 80 countries were expected to participate. 

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer ended his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on Feb. 29, saying he didn't see "a path" to win the presidency. (Reuters)

— Bye-bye, Steyer: Billionaire activist Tom Steyer ended his presidential campaign after a poor showing in South Carolina where he was projected to leave without winning any delegates. Steyer had staked his long-shot bid on his climate-centric message and on South Carolina, arguing that the impacts of a warming planet will be mostly felt by black and brown communities. “I think environmental justice plays well here,” Steyer said in an interview in Charleston, adding: “I’m someone who’s been working on those things for a long time, too.”

  • What he said: “Honestly, I can’t see a path where I can win the presidency,” Steyer told supporters on Saturday. “When the Lord closes a door, he opens a window. I will find that window and crawl through with you. … This has been a great experience and I have zero regrets.” 

— Warren’s latest climate plan: Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) looks to fill any void with yet another climate-related plan. This time she is directly targeting Wall Street banks.

  • The details: The plan includes directing the Securities and Exchange Commission to require public companies to disclose climate-related risks. It will also require U.S. banks to report how much fossil fuel equity and debt they create per year. 
  • What she says: “We will not defeat the climate crisis if we have to wait for the financial industry to self-regulate or come forward with piecemeal voluntary commitments,” she writes in a post on Medium. 

— How Bloomberg’s effort against coal was meant to be a boost: The billionaire philanthropist has spent millions to help shutter coal-fired power plants and help the transition to natural gas. But while climate change was supposed to be a strength for Mike Bloomberg, his work toward the transition to natural gas “has become a liability to his campaign at a moment when the only acceptable fossil fuel is no fossil fuel,” The New York Times reports. 

  • To quote: “We need a Democratic candidate who understands the urgency of this crisis and who is clear-eyed on the need to move away from all fossil fuels, and that includes gas,” said David Turnbull, spokesman for nonprofit environmental group Oil Change U.S. “Bloomberg’s record on that remains murky.”
  • What Bloomberg’s campaign says: “Bloomberg campaign officials say his climate plan calls for halting the growth of natural gas and transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy ‘as fast as possible.’…. That message does not seem to be breaking through.”

— A lesson about scientific credibility under Trump: A trove of emails from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration underline how the agency’s scientific credibility was harmed as a result of the “Sharpiegate” incident following Hurricane Dorian. “[A]ll it took was a six-day period featuring a few tweets from President Trump and a Sharpie-modified hurricane forecast map in the Oval Office followed by a politically motivated statement about the storm’s path to cause some citizens to regard the agency’s work as tainted by political interference,” The Post’s Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow report.

  • The details: Many of the emails were about Trump’s errant tweet that claimed Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Dorian, as well as the controversial statement from a NOAA representative that criticized a Birmingham National Weather Service forecast office for contradicting Trump’s claims.
  • To quote: “I was heartsick and dumbstruck to see the NOAA announcement today supporting the president’s ludicrous and psychotic defense of his Alabama forecast garbage,” one email read. NOAA employee Gregory Hammer, who was tracking tweets on the issue, wrote in an email: “Most are asking, in some form, ‘How can we trust NOAA?’ or stating that ‘NOAA has lost its credibility.’ ”

— Anti-climate activist praises alt-right commentator at CPAC: Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, teenager Naomi Seibt said she was “still a fan, absolutely” of Stefan Molyneux, Canadian alt-right commentator, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Desmond Butler write.

  • What she said: Seibt was asked by Business Insider whether she still supported Molyneux in light of remarks in which he said he had been skeptical of “white nationalism” but after a trip to Poland he said he “could have peaceful, free, easy, civilized, and safe discussions in what is essentially an all-white country.” She replied: “I am still a fan, absolutely.”
  • Who is Molyneux? “The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, has called Molyneux ‘a skilled propagandist’ who ‘amplifies ‘scientific racism,’ eugenics and white supremacism,’ ” Eilperin and Butler report. “Molyneux, who has hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers, ‘has encouraged thousands of people to adopt his belief in biological determinism, social Darwinism and non-white racial inferiority,’ the group says in an online profile.”

— Obstacles in federal push to ease auto emissions rules: Lobbyists and government officials say the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department are at odds over how to finalize new rules meant to roll back auto-emissions standards, The Wall Street Journal reports.

  • The status: “Administration officials hope to complete the rule by April 1, but are likely to miss that target, the people say. The delays could further prolong uncertainty for the auto industry, which is trying to lock in plans now for new models due out in the coming years,” pe the report. “…Some EPA staff have challenged the DOT’s analysis and don’t feel the agency has had adequate say in how the new regulations are being crafted, some of the people say.”
  • What lawmakers are saying: Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has sent a letter to the EPA’s inspector general calling for a probe into whether the rulemaking process has been transparent and proper.

— “Can you imagine the soundscape without that crinkle, crinkle, whispery sound?”: Here’s a fun, interactive look at the end of a plastic-bag era in New York from the New York Times, as a statewide ban began on Sunday: “They cluster in drains, spill out of garbage cans and tangle in trees. Together with old MetroCards, Anthora coffee cups, and disintegrating copies of the New York Post, they have become part of the city’s visual landscape, the kind of everyday objects so pervasive that they seem invisible.” 

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the Energy Department’s Applied Energy Programs’ budget requests for Fiscal Year 2021 on Tuesday. 
  • The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces holds a hearing on the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request for Nuclear Forces and Atomic Energy Defense Activities on Tuesday.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the EPA’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2021 on Wednesday. 
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the Interior Department’s spending priorities and the Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal on Wednesday. 
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on addressing America’s plastic waste crisis on Wednesday. 
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the Energy Department and National Nuclear Security Administration on Wednesday.
  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on Wednesday. 
  • The Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds a hearing on Wednesday. 

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Bloom watch: Some cherry trees in Washington have already developed green buds, according to the National Park Service, days earlier than in 2019.