with Paulina Firozi


One of the biggest sticking points to emerge in the fight over the coronavirus stimulus package is how to prop up the nation's energy sector, struggling from a glut of oil and plummeting prices during the spreading epidemic.

Democrats were seeking a litany of subsidies for clean energy businesses to help renewable energy projects facing new economic headwinds from the viral outbreak. Republicans want to help keep the U.S. oil and gas sector afloat by buying fuel to fill a massive government reserve.

“We're here trying to fight for the man and woman on the street in our hometowns," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said on the Senate floor Monday, “and yet they're fighting for the Green New Deal."

Here is what the two sides are fighting over when it comes to energy policy:

  • Over the weekend, Senate Republicans told Democrats they want about $3 billion for refilling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The Trump administration has pushed for purchasing crude for the nation's emergency oil supply, held in salt caverns near the Gulf of Mexico, while prices are low as a way of propping up struggling U.S. shale producers.
  • Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), countered by asking for a litany of subsidies to help clean-energy businesses also rocked by the turmoil in financial markets, as well as for new fuel-efficiency standards for airlines, one of the difficult-to-tackle sources of climate-warming pollution.
  • But Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) balked at the deal — and took to the Senate floor Monday to denounce it. “Are you kidding me?” the Senate majority leader said. “This is the moment to debate regulations that have nothing whatsoever to do with this crisis?”
  • And yes, President Trump had something to say too:

Yet environmentalists, scientists and others concerned about climate change say the stimulus package offers a rare chance to nudge the economy toward cleaner ways of producing power and transporting people and goods. Eight Democratic senators, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), took up that call and urged congressional leaders in a letter last week to make sure major airlines address air pollution as part of an aid package.

"We have two curves we need to quickly bend downward," Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson. “One is the coronavirus infections, and the second is global emissions — neither of them will be easy.”

But such environmental measures have few paths forward in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans time and again have opposed including clean-energy tax breaks in larger legislative packages since Trump has taken office. Democratic leaders are not asking for measures included in the Green New Deal, such as a jobs guarantee and a complete transition to net-zero emissions in electricity generation — but that has not stopped Republicans from slapping that moniker on Democrats' requests for the coronavirus response.

Still, there is precedent for an oil-for-renewables deal of this sort: In 2015, Democrats agreed to lift a decades-old moratorium on oil exports in exchange for a suite of tax breaks meant to kickstart solar, wind and other renewable energy projects.

Talks between Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin went well into the evening Monday and wrapped up shortly before midnight. Both left the Capitol without a deal in hand, though they were “optimistic they could announce one Tuesday morning,” Erica Werner, Paul Kane, Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis report — though it's unclear what the energy-related provisions of such a deal would look like.

Complicating matters even further, however, is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who offered her own $2.5 trillion proposal late Monday that would compel airlines to adhere to new emissions requirements in exchange for $37 billion in grants.

As lawmakers bickered, the destruction across the U.S. economy continued, with the Dow Jones industrial average shedding another 600 points. 

The energy industry is not being spared from the bloodletting. The stock value of major fossil fuel firms, as tracked by Standard & Poor's, is down more than 60 percent on the year as domestic oil and gas producers begin to struggle to compete with cheaper fuel from Saudi Arabia and Russia. “Oilfield services firms have this week been the first companies to feel the hit from the sharp drop in the price of petroleum,” Brittney Martin and Will Englund report.

And the renewable energy sector, though much smaller than the oil and gas industry, is bracing for its own workforce contraction. The wind sector is estimating the economic slowdown could lead to the loss of 35,000 wind turbine technicians and other jobs.


— A shift in focus from climate crisis to coronavirus: In an online news conference, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the pandemic is the world’s top concern, though he urged countries to not forget climate change-related challenges, E&E News reports. Still, he said all resources should focus on addressing the public health crisis at hand. 

  • Postponing climate events: “The United Nations’ main climate change initiatives have been moved online or are on hold. Several planned U.N. climate action gatherings have been canceled or delayed,” per the report. “…With talk that the crisis could extend into the summer — or beyond — more gatherings could face a similar fate. Those include the U.N. Ocean Conference planned for Portugal in early June, and the World Conservation Congress at the end of June to be hosted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Marseille, France.” 

— California shuts state parking lots to deter beach and park crowds: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced the state will close down parking lots at state parks and state beaches after a weekend of crowding, the Los Angeles Times reports. “We’re going to shut down all state parking lots, and that will go into effect immediately,” Newsom said.

  • To quote: “Normally that would light my heart to see tens and thousands of people congregating down in Malibu and other parts of our beautiful state,” he said. “It’s understandable people’s desire with the first weekend with the new stay-at-home order — some folks testing it…We need to practice common sense and socially distance, and that means we need to help you help yourself.” 

— Auto manufacturers pitching in on response: Carmakers in the United States and around the globe have announced efforts to try to build equipment including ventilators. 

  • In the U.S.: General Motors said it is studying the possibility of building ventilators at a plant in Indiana, Reuters reports. “As part of the effort to boost ventilator output from Ventec, GM has arranged for the supply of 95% of the parts needed to build the ventilator and is seeking to source the remaining 37 necessary parts,” per the report. “…The goal of the venture is to build up to 200,000 ventilators, said people familiar with the plans who asked not to be identified.”
  • In Germany: Reuters reports Germany’s auto industry association said its members would also help build and supply medical equipment such as ventilators and face masks with the use of 3-D printing machines.
  • Trump's strange claim: The president tweeted over the weekend that GM, Ford and Tesla had been “given the go ahead” to make such products, but Bloomberg News reports that “no one seemed to know what this pronouncement meant.” “What is clear, though, is that companies were already racing to try to determine how — or if — they could contribute,” per the report. “And that they recognize there will be no easy switch-over to manufacture something like a ventilator, which pumps oxygen into a Covid-19 patient’s lungs and removes carbon dioxide through a hose.”

— In other (still troubling) news: Scientists have discovered the Denman Glacier in east Antarctica is retreating into the deepest undersea canyon in the entire Antarctic ice sheet. 

  • What this means: “It is creeping backward down a slope that plunges into these extreme depths, new research finds, potentially igniting a feedback process that could ultimately unload trillions of tons of ice into the ocean,” Chris Mooney reports. There is nearly five feet of sea level rise at stake.
  • Important to note: “It’s unclear how fast this dynamic could play out. In a region with a complex and little understood undersea topography, it’s unknown how much warm water is making it to the base of Denman, and that makes a huge difference,” Mooney reports.

— PG&E pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter more than a year after Camp Fire: California's largest utility will plead guilty to 85 felony counts, including 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, for its role in California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire. The blaze, which was sparked by one of the utility’s power lines, razed the town of Paradise and obliterated nearly 19,000 buildings, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • To quote: “We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident,” PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson said in a statement.
  • An “unprecedented” plea: That’s what Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The pleading would appear to make PG&E among the most criminally convicted companies in the history of the United States, at least in terms of fatal injuries,” per the report. “Perhaps the closest recent analogue is BP. The petroleum company that pled guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter in 2012 over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion two years earlier that killed 11 people and sent millions of gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.”


— You can still learn about the weather from home: The Capital Weather Gang is debuting “Weather School” on Facebook live. Watch yesterday's topic below: 

Tune in to weather school now!

Posted by Capital Weather Gang on Monday, March 23, 2020