THE LIGHTBULB

The Agriculture Department's inspector general has opened an inquiry into whether the Forest Service broke any rules after federal funds were funneled to a timber industry group trying to lift logging restrictions in Alaska.

The watchdog is reviewing a $2 million grant to the state of Alaska. Typically, such grants from the USDA's State Fire Assistance program go to wildfire prevention and response. 

But the state used the money to support its efforts to strike down decades-old federal limits on tree cutting in the 16.7 million-acre Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. The state gave more than $200,000 of the grant from the Forest Service to the Alaska Forest Association, a timber group, to provide the industry's perspective on the Trump administration's rollback of protections on the forest. 

Politicians, conservationists and loggers have long fought to decide the fate of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. The Trump administration is seeking to exempt nearly 9.5 million acres of the Tongass from restrictions on road building and other logging activity implemented by President Clinton nearly two decades ago. 

On one side of the issue are state government leaders, as well as Alaska's Republican congressional delegation, which is cheering the move aimed at aiding Alaska's ailing timber industry. On the other side are many Democrats in Congress, along with their conservationist allies, who lament the loss of more old-growth trees that help guard against climate change.

The IG inquiry comes at the request of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, following a news report from Alaska Public Media about the grant.

“The Tongass is America’s largest national forest and protecting it is a critical part of addressing the climate crisis,” Stabenow said in a statement. “This impartial review will help us discover whether taxpayer dollars were misused to threaten one of our most important natural resources.”

The USDA and Forest Service did not reply to a request for comment, and the Alaska Forest Association declined to comment. Deltrick H. Johnson, deputy counsel at the IG's office, said he could not say when the review of the grant will be complete. 

Trying to open up the Tongass is one piece of the Trump administration's overall push to harvest more timber across the country — and, in drier forests in the Lower 48, thin underbrush to prevent forest fires. Last year the Forest Service, which manages nearly 200 million acres of woodlands and grasslands, proposed trimming the amount of environmental review needed for many forest management decisions.

And the Tongass is just one spot the Trump administration is trying to develop in Alaska. 

  • In the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska: The Trump administration wants to allow more drilling in the 23 million-acre reserve (roughly the size of Indiana). The area was first set aside in 1923 as a strategic fuel reservoir, but over the decades it was largely left as wilderness and has increasingly been seen as ecologically valuable.
  • And in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: A controversial provision of a 2017 tax bill passed by the GOP-controlled Congress and signed by President Trump opens up a nearly 1.6 million-acre swath (roughly the size of Delaware) of the pristine refuge for caribou and polar bears in northeast Alaska to oil and gas drilling.

POWER PLAYS

— The White House responds to coronavirus-fueled oil shock: The White House is strongly considering federal aid for oil and natural gas companies that have been impacted by tanking oil prices amid the coronavirus outbreak, Jeff Stein, Will Englund, Steven Mufson and Robert Costa report.

  • Phones ringing off the hook: Industry officials have been making an appeal to the administration, whose leader has often touted the growth of oil and natural gas production. Energy sector allies have been calling Trump and his advisers this week as White House officials worry that shale companies could be driven out of business.
  • What they’re saying: These allies have “voiced concern and at times exasperation not only about oil prices, but also privately warning against the administration supporting any sweeping paid sick leave policy, according to a major GOP donor and a White House official familiar with the discussions.”
  • What assistance could look like: “It is unclear exactly what form a federal program would take. … Another senior administration official confirmed the relief for shale companies was under consideration but cautioned political blowback over the idea may eventually lead campaign advisers and others in the administration to talk Trump out of it.”
  • Or… Some oil industry lobbyists are calling on the Trump administration to take advantage of the recent oil price collapse to stock up on low-cost barrels and replenish the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, according to Bloomberg News.

Here are some other coronavirus headlines:

  • Agencies dust off contingency plans: The Interior Department is reviewing a pandemic influenza plan that was first created in 2007, E&E News reports. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told lawmakers that Interior Deputy Secretary Katharine MacGregor is tasked with reviewing and updating the plan. “We've already taken a whole series of steps, and we'll continue to,” Bernhardt said. “We're taking it extremely seriously, as we work through particular issues." 
  • Oil output reaches record high: Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company Saudi Aramco announced it would up production to a record 12.3 million barrels a day in April. “The move seemed to make good on the country's promise over the weekend to increase output after Russia refused to cooperate on cutting production,” the Associated Press reports. 
  • Meanwhile, in Moscow: “An oil price war between Russia and OPEC giant Saudi Arabia has done more than upend markets amid wider economic turmoil from the coronavirus outbreak. It has put Moscow into a potentially costly gamble,” Isabelle Khurshudyan reports. “The value of the ruble plummeted along with the cost of oil, with the currency hitting its lowest level in more than four years Tuesday. That has stirred fears of a recession in Russia, whose economy was already wobbly from sanctions.”  

— Murkowski calls out colleagues over stalled Senate energy package: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) chided senators, including fellow Republicans, after a vote this week failed to end debate on the sprawling energy package she introduced with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “You have a few individuals who feel that their priority needs to trump everything else that we're doing around here,” she said to reporters, according to The Hill

  • What’s next: Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters disputes over an amendment that would phase down hydrofluorocarbons may have delayed any progress on the measure until after Congress’s recess next week. “It's not dead, but it's going to have to be revived. Right now, it’s certainly stalled,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
  • But: Murkowski sounded even less hopeful. “Maybe John Thune is wrong. Maybe it's not coming back at all. Because right now, I don't know who I'm going to work with,” she told reporters. “I don't know whether your recorders are picking up my anger, but this process is not right.”

— PG&E comes to deal with first responders: Bankrupt California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has settled with first responders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state agencies who have “agreed they won’t take money set aside for victims of the wildfires that drove California’s largest utility into bankruptcy,” the Wall Street Journal reports. 

  • The details: “As Judge Dennis Montali weighed the company’s bid for approval to start the voting process on the plan, lawyers announced the agreements with FEMA and California agencies,” per the report. “…California is dropping its claims to recoup about $300 million it spent on firefighting and emergency services, while FEMA has agreed to chop its claim from $3.9 billion to $1 billion. Additionally, FEMA has agreed it will only attempt to collect after all individual victims are paid in full from the $13.5 billion.” 

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management holds a hearing on FEMA’s priorities.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies holds a hearing in the “Impact of PFAS Exposure on Servicemembers."

Coming Up

  • The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on climate change on Thursday.
  • The Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis holds a hearing on the economic risks of climate change on Thursday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Bloom watch: The Post’s Capital Weather Gang has revised its forecast for the peak bloom for Washington’s famed cherry blossoms. “Because of the mild weather over the region now and the forecast for more over the next 10 days, we’re moving up our forecast for peak bloom five days, from March 25 to 29 to March 20 to 24, centered on March 22,” Jason Samenow reports.