THE LIGHTBULB

Making new homes and businesses more energy efficient has long been recognized as a key way of curbing climate change.  

But stricter building codes were just dropped from a major energy package making its way this week through the Senate. 

A key reason: A powerful lobbying group's concerted push to convince lawmakers they're bad for business.  

The National Association of Home Builders, one of the largest lobbying organizations in Washington, is arguing that the proposed building codes amount to an unfair and unnecessary increase on the cost of buying a home

Jerry Howard, NAHB's chief executive, “adamantly opposes” efforts by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to require the Energy Department set targets for new homes and commercial buildings to stop wasting energy. 

“We don't think that the Department of Energy should be coming in on top of state and local energy regulations and telling [them] how homes need to be built in their jurisdiction,” he said. 

The bill, which binds together 50 energy-related proposals from both Democrats and Republicans, represents the best chance for major energy legislation to pass the Senate during the current congressional term. 

Shaheen blames the home builders for scuttling efforts to pass new building codes into law. “This special interest group should not be allowed to derail meaningful bipartisan action on energy efficiency in Congress,” she said. 

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she decided to take out the building codes from her package with ranking member Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) out of concern it could tank the bill. 

“The subject of building codes has been controversial for a long time,” she said, though a similar provision was included in an energy package that passed the Senate in 2016. “At the end of the day, I decided I would take it out, knowing there would be opportunity for an amendment.” 

The latest spat between home developers and energy efficiency advocates may now spill onto the Senate floor, as lawmakers prepare to debate whether to insert the building codes provision into the broader energy bill.  

The package includes several provisions from a bill put forward by Portman and Shaheen, including measures to expand the Energy Department’s efforts to help manufacturers reduce energy waste and to train workers. But it left out the building codes provision that would have delivered the bulk of the Portman-Shaheen bill’s potential energy savings. 

The building code proposal was hailed by green groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The codes would not be mandatory unless states and municipalities decide to adopt them. Portman calls his proposal a “common-sense” approach that “will lower energy costs for American consumers and ensure that homes and buildings across America are built in a more energy efficient manner, not by mandates but by incentives.” 

Senate Democrats are pressing for votes on a several amendments to the bill, including ones extending tax breaks for wind and solar energy and another phasing out a class of climate-warming pollutants emitted by refrigerators and air conditioners.

At the moment, not every member of the GOP caucus is on board with the idea of stricter building codes — even just voluntary ones — coming from the federal government. “Any effort to put the Department of Energy in the driver seat in the building code development process and set building energy efficiency targets for the commercial and residential sectors would be a massive federal overreach,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.

To bolster that opposition, the NAHB has been asking contractors to hammer the phone lines of their senators' offices in recent days. “We've asked all of our members. We've got our grass roots on red alert,” Howard said. “We started it last week when they were on recess, and we're going to continue it all the way through the vote.”

What's at stake: Reducing energy waste in new buildings is a major — if underappreciated — way of cutting down on the amount of climate-warming emissions that end up in the atmosphere. The more energy efficient new homes and commercial buildings are, the less gas or electricity is needed to heat them. 

“It's not sexy. It's not eye-catching new technology,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank. But improving the energy efficiency of buildings “absolutely has to happen if we want to have any shot of hitting our greenhouse gas targets."

POWER PLAYS

— Trump calls for conservation program funding: The president tweeted a request for Congress to send him a bill to “fully and permanently” fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund after his fiscal 2021 budget proposal for the Interior Department included cutting the fund by nearly 97 percent. 

  • It's a reversal: The program is popular among lawmakers from both parties, but the Trump White House has proposed cutting its funding in multiple budget requests — including as recently as Feb. 10, per Roll Call.
  • The Dem reaction: “I welcome the president’s apparent newfound support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund – and I hope that someone will show him his own budget request,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said in a statement.
  • What's really going on: Trump's concession seems designed to boost to reelection bid of Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), one of the most vulnerable Republicans up this November. He and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is also on the 2020 ballot, trumpeted Trump's change of heart in a news release.

— Trump wants to move liquefied natural gas on trains: A new Trump administration proposal would allow liquefied natural gas shipments via railroads nationwide, Will Englund reports. It’s an approach that has been banned because of uncertain hazards, and the new Transportation Department rule has drawn widespread criticism from the National Transportation Safety Board, local officials, unions representing railroad employees as well as environmental groups.  

  • The details: Energy companies and railroads have been pushing to lift the ban. And Trump called on the department to quickly develop the proposal, eager to bolster fossil fuel exports. “[I]f the new rule is adopted, trains of 100 or more tank cars, each with a capacity of 30,000 gallons, could start carrying LNG, primarily from shale fields to saltwater ports, where it would be loaded onto ships for export,” Englund writes.
  • The reaction: The independent NTSB wrote in a comment on the proposed rule, “The risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate.” Meanwhile, the proposal has “escaped notice by the general public, and the window to comment on the rule recently closed.”

— Group pans update to EPA science rule: The Environmental Protection Agency has revised a part of its controversial proposal to limit the consideration of studies that don’t make their underlying data public, but scientists are not pleased with the update. “The Thursday update doesn’t abandon the policy’s underlying goal, but rather than exclude some research entirely, the agency would now give preference to studies with public data,” the Hill reports.

  • The reaction: “This proposed rule is a sham put forth by EPA political leadership despite the nearly universal objection of scientists and public health experts inside and outside the agency,” said Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is also a former official at the National Marine Fisheries Service. “Premised on phony claims of transparency, this rule would severely limit the EPA from considering the most important scientific information the agency needs to do its job.”

— ExxonMobil thinks there should be stricter methane regulations: The oil and gas giant outlined its own guidelines for reducing the methane released by its operations, suggesting the guide can be a model for companies and governments around the world, per the AP. 

  • What the company says: “Our industry has developed high-tech advances to curb emissions, and we also hope this framework will be helpful for governments as they develop new regulations,” Exxon’s chief executive Darren Woods said in a statement.
  • Why it’s notable: “Some environmental advocates see Exxon's move as a rebuke of President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency, which in August proposed relaxing regulations on methane emissions. But they also said Exxon needs to be much more aggressive in its efforts to curtail global warming.”

— Youth climate lawsuit dismissal will be appealed: Attorneys for the group of youth climate activists are appealing a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to dismiss a climate change lawsuit against the federal government. 

  • The details: The lawyers argue that the 9th Circuit ruling, which said the climate policies the group sought must come from the legislative branch, “fails to ensure the youth activists’ right to a trial,” The Hill reports.
  • To quote: “In overturning the district court, the majority fundamentally changed the way our branches of our government operate, placing the president and Congress beyond the reach of judicial oversight. If this opinion stands, there will be no more constitutional checks and balances on government conduct,” argued an attorney for the plaintiffs, Philip Gregory.
National Security
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran is blowing past limits on the amount of nuclear fuel it had agreed to hold as part of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Joby Warrick

DAYBOOK

Today

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

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Bloom watch: The Post's Capital Weather Gang is forecasting that the peak bloom for Washington's famed cherry blossoms will be between March 25 and March 29. “This is a few days earlier than the recent (30-year) average of March 31, and a week before the longer-term (1921-2019) average of April 3,” Jason Samenow reports.