with Paulina Firozi

The Trump administration is signaling it is about to offer a lifeline to solar and wind projects battered by the coronavirus pandemic

In a letter sent to senators Thursday, the Treasury Department said it is considering ways to let solar, wind and other alternative energy developers continue to qualify for tax incentives critical for paying for the building of wind turbines and solar panel arrays – even if construction is put on hold. 

The decision is a coup for businesses trying to move the country toward cleaner energy but were facing potential delays in construction and funding due to the coronavirus pandemic. Until now, there was no specific help given to alternative energy companies in the country's economic relief efforts even as President Trump and his administration search for ways to help struggling oil and gas companies.  

“Projects that have been waylaid by the economic disruptions of this pandemic can now proceed with more certainty,” said Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who led a bipartisan group of six senators in asking the department for the relief for renewables. 

Like so many other parts of the economy, renewables have been creamed by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to one analysis, about 106,000 solar panel installers and other clean-energy workers have already filed for unemployment in March as developers see funding halted and supply chains disrupted

In particular, solar and wind developers need to complete construction on projects within four years to receive juicy government incentives used to help underwrite development.

In an April 23 letter, the group led by Grassley — whose state has about 4,700 wind turbines and gets a third of its electricity from wind as of 2018 — asked the Treasury to give developers a fifth year to get the work done.

In response, Frederick W. Vaughan, a principal deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, wrote the department “plans to modify the relevant rules in the near future.” 

While the letter was short on specifics, Gregory Wetstone, head of the American Council on Renewable Energy, a renewables lobbying group, was encouraged by the news. “Extending these safe harbor deadlines would be immensely helpful as the renewable sector has been hit hard these last couple of months,” he said.

The Trump administration and Congress have so far paid little attention to renewables in covid-19 legislation.

That's despite the fact that hydropower, wind and solar constitute roughly one-fifth of all power produced in the United States.

By contrast, Trump and his deputies have vowed at various times to come to the rescue of the oil and gas sector, which has been hit hard by a dramatic collapse in energy demand that made the price of crude go negative for several hours last month.

It appears increasingly unlikely Congress will address energy infrastructure in the next bill. 

House Democrats are assembling a massive new coronavirus rescue package, which is expected to exceed $2 trillion and could get a vote next week. Lawmakers are aiming to include a hodgepodge of measures, including money for the Postal Service, rural broadband and rent and mortgage relief, to kick-start economic activity that cratered under stay-at-home orders.

But any provision related to energy infrastructure, including adjusting tax credits meant to boost alternative energy investment, appears to be off the negotiating table for now, according to both a House Democratic aide and an industry executive.

While Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment and climate change, did not rule out the inclusion of clean-energy tax incentives in the next bill, he said the priority in the next stimulus package will be getting relief to front-line workers and to state and local governments.

“That will be the big focus right now,” he said in an interview Thursday.

A set of green tax incentives could gum up getting another coronavirus relief bill through the Senate. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn't committed to doing another round of stimulus, but did make clear Tuesday he is uninterested in including what he called “unrelated, ideological wish list items” in any future coronavirus legislation. In March, he rejected a request from Democrats to include a set of clean-energy incentives in a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Tonko, who has put forward a comprehensive climate bill, insisted that Congress needs to heed scientists' warnings and tackle both climate change and the coronavirus.

“Science is guiding us and instructing us,” he said.

Coronavirus fallout

The Energy Department is set to reopen its headquarters soon. 

Some agency appointees could return to work there as soon as Monday, E&E News reports, citing an internal memo. The department’s “national recovery plan will be tailored for each office and laboratory and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” per the report.

“In preparation for an eventual smooth and phased transition back to normal operations, Secretary Brouillette has asked a number of key personnel to return to work next Monday, May 11th, while the rest of the department will remain on maximum telework status,” agency spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement.

Some states call on FERC to halt fossil fuel project approvals. 

Attorneys general from 10 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to Neil Chatterjee, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, calling on the agency to postpone approvals of new and pending natural gas pipelines, liquefied natural gas export facilities, and other fossil-fuel infrastructure projects amid the pandemic. 

“Even under typical circumstances, it is difficult for affected stakeholders to fully advocate for their interests. The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed even greater burdens on communities attempting to organize their interests and participate in Commission proceedings,” the AGs wrote.

Chatterjee told the Hill in a statement that FERC “will be responding in due course” to the letter. The request follows a similar one last month from nearly 30 House Democrats. 

Oil check

Halliburton laid off 1,000 employees. 

The Houston-based oil field services giant made the cuts after already furloughing 3,500 employees at its headquarters. The layoffs, the company said, are a result of an “unforeseeable, dramatic business downturn caused by the coronavirus and unprecedented commodity price decline,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

“Producers have shut down wells and stopped completing ones that they have been drilling,” the report adds. “A large part of Halliburton’s business in North America entails completion services, which include hydraulic fracturing.” 

Despite the layoffs, the oil market may finally have stabilized, analysts say. 

JPMorgan analysts say demand could get back to normal after two or three months, Business Insider reports. “While there is still a massive glut of oil that will need to be cleared before there can be any meaningful recovery in prices, we believe that the global oil market is tentatively entering an inflection phase, where rebalancing has started,” the analysts wrote. 

Tesla is halting production at its plant in China. 

The move put a pause on the electric automaker’s vehicle manufacturing worldwide, Bloomberg News reports.

“The reason for the abrupt halt wasn’t immediately clear. Chinese technology news site 36kr reported it was because of component shortages,” the report adds. “The production halt means that Tesla isn’t making any cars worldwide. Its other vehicle-assembly plant in Fremont, California, has been idled since March 23."

Global warming watch

Wildfires sweep across the Florida Panhandle. 

Hundreds of residents had to evacuate their homes to escape fires moving through several counties there. The largest blaze covered 2,000 acres in Santa Rosa County, the New York Times reports, forcing about 1,100 to leave their homes on Thursday. Another 500 residents were evacuated because of a 575-acre wildfire in Walton County. 

“Officials said that they were concerned about the risk of coronavirus transmission by housing large groups of people at shelters, so many families were placed in hotels,” per the report. 

The world is losing forests at a slower rate. 

That’s according to new data from the United Nations. Earth has lost 178 million hectares of forest since 1990, and the rate has dropped “substantially” in the past decade, Bloomberg News reports. That drop is in part a result of the planting of forests as well as slower deforestation.

But deforestation isn’t slowing as much as some have hoped. “Although the progress is encouraging, it nevertheless falls far short of environmental goals,” per the report. “Deforestation was supposed to have been halted completely by 2020 under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 15. And while deforestation has been declining, the pace of decline is slowing.” 

Extra mileage

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