with Paulina Firozi

If Democrats win big in the November election, they may have an unusual way of quickly repealing some important Trump administration environmental rollbacks. That's because the coronavirus pandemic has upended the schedule in Congress. 

An obscure tool may be available to Democrats who have pledged to bring back car and water pollution rules undone by Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, since the viral outbreak has drastically altered the planned congressional calendar. 

Restoring Obama-era pollution protections is one of former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden's biggest campaign promises when it comes to addressing climate change and cleaning up the environment.

If Biden wins, he could avoid going through a long bureaucratic process of repealing Trump-era rules. 

The Congressional Review Act gives Congress and the president the power to repeal any federal regulation within 60 legislative days of it being implemented. All it takes is a simple majority in both chambers to cancel a regulation using the act — no Senate filibuster allowed.

But the exact amount of days Congress is in session is critical to this timeline. At the start of the year, the House was planning to work for 25 weeks in 2020. But House leaders scrapped plans to meet through much of the spring as the virus spread. And an updated House legislative calendar released Friday includes only one voting day in June and none in August. 

The initial schedule meant that only regulations finished after mid-May would be subject to being quickly canceled by a new Democratic Congress in early 2021. But the reduction in congressional work days mean that the Trump administration's deadline to finish regulations that could avoid the Congressional Review Act shifted back to about April 17, according to calculations done by Dan Goldbeck of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank.

Suddenly, several major EPA rules completed in late April are more vulnerable to being nixed.

They include one rule weakening the government’s mileage standards for cars and pickup trucks, completed on April 30, and another scaling back which waterways fall under federal protection, finalized on April 21.

And any additional rule completed between now and the end of Trump’s term, such as a forthcoming plan for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, may also be revoked under the Congressional Review Act.

Using the law negates the need for a president to go through the regular regulation-writing process, which take many months to complete and may be challenged in court.

Of course, making use of the law depends on not only Biden beating Trump in November – but also on Democrats retaking the Senate and retaining the House. Or, at least, on Democrats getting enough votes for a simple majority in both chambers to reverse Trump's orders. 

The exact date by which Trump rules need to be completed to avoid being revoked under the act can only be known once the full congressional calendar is set. “You can only really know when the window opens in retrospect,” said Bridget C.E. Dooling, a research professor at the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office said it will release the House schedule for the fall at a later date. 

Still, some left-leaning organizations say they will prepare which regulations they will push Democrats to use the Congressional Review Act to target.

“Those discussions will begin in earnest this summer,” said Kate Kelly, a public lands expert at the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank.

The Congressional Review Act played a prominent role in the first few months of the Trump administration.

In 2017, the GOP-led Congress dusted off the tool to nullify an Interior Department regulation protecting streams from coal-industry pollution and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule limiting the shooting of wolves from planes and other hunting practices in Alaska.

In total, Republicans used the law to roll back more than a dozen Obama administration rules on a broad range of issues that year.

Liberals usually haven’t been the biggest fans of the 1996 law, a brainchild of former House speaker Newt Gingrich. 

“It’s not clear why there should be this shortcut,” said Amit Narang, regulatory expert at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. “It’s a badly drafted, poorly worded law.”

But since Trump has taken office, Democrats in Congress have embraced it. 

Last year, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) used the law to force a vote to repeal a Trump administration regulation on coal-fired power plants that environmentalists say is too weak. The measure was defeated in a 53-to-41 vote along party lines. 

“If everything fell into place,” Goldbeck said, “there would be significant interest” among Democrats in using it again in 2021.

Trump’s EPA spent the first few months of 2020 hurrying to put the final touches on its regulations.

As my colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported, Trump appointees at the EPA ignored warnings from career employees that its new mileage standards for cars were seriously flawed as the agency rushed to get the rule out the door.

EPA chief Andrew Wheeler made significant changes to the rule after he signed it on March 30, before it was officially published in the Federal Register nearly a month later.

“The agency is focused on completing its work in a thorough and timely manner,” agency spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in a statement.

Power plays

An internal watchdog said a senior Interior Department official violated ethics rules, again.

Douglas W. Domenech, an assistant interior secretary, violated federal ethics rules by using his role to try to get a member of his family a role at the Environmental Protection Agency, the New York Times reports, citing an internal watchdog report. 

It’s the second time in six months the Interior Department’s inspector general found that Domenech violated ethics laws. 

The latest watchdog report notes that “at the time of these events Domenech was not new to Government service,” having worked in the federal bureaucracy for more than a decade.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it won’t formally object to the proposed Pebble Mine. 

It’s the latest development in the years-long battle between a Canadian-owned mining firm against commercial fishing operators, native Alaskans and conservationists who warn the mining could damage the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

“Christopher Hladick, the EPA’s regional administrator for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, wrote to the Alaska district engineer, Col. David Hibner, that the agency still has serious concerns about the plan, including that dredging for the open-pit mine ‘may well contribute to the permanent loss of 2,292 acres of wetlands and … 105.4 miles of streams,’ ” Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “But Hladick said the EPA would not elevate the matter to the leadership of the two agencies, which could delay necessary approvals for the project to advance. The EPA ‘appreciates the Corps’ recent commitment to continue this coordination into the future,’ he wrote.”

The Treasury Department and IRS extended relief for those developing renewable energy projects. 

The agencies announced late last week they would provide “safe harbor” for taxpayers who develop electricity projects from sources including wind, biomass and hydropower, and use technologies such as solar panels and fuel cells. 

The Energy 202 reported last month that the Treasury Department told senators it was considering ways to allow solar, wind and other alternative energy developers to continue to qualify for tax incentives even if construction is paused amid the pandemic. 

Coronavirus latest

The world's three biggest producers of greenhouse gases are reopening, and they have very different paths forward. 

In Europe, a more than $800 billion recovery package includes a plan to move away from fossil fuels. China has allowed for the building of new coal plants but has “declined to set specific economic growth targets for this year, a move that came as a relief to environmentalists because it reduces the pressure to turn up the country’s industrial machine quickly,” the New York Times reports.

In the United Sates, meanwhile, the Trump administration has “used the coronavirus pandemic to relax an array of environmental rules. Embattled Republicans and their allies have been testing the argument that climate friendly policies would kill jobs and crush an already ailing economy, though there is no evidence to support those claims. And, while the early United States aid packages have resisted calls to boost renewable energy, and fossil fuel companies have dipped into the relief money, the next rounds of government stimulus are still in play.”

A team of scientists is trying to develop a coronavirus test for marine mammals. 

It’s not yet known whether dolphins and whales get covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but they do get coronaviruses, neuroimmunologist Tracy Romano told E&E News.

Her team at Mystic Aquarium in Stonington, Conn., wants to test the mammals to determine whether their immune systems can fight pathogens. It's research that could benefit humans, as well. 

“Allison Tuttle, a veterinary scientist at Mystic Aquarium, said there has been evidence in the past of coronaviruses affecting marine mammals, including instances of pneumonia in seals in California, bacterial infections in seals along the Atlantic Coast and hepatitis in beluga whales,” E&E reports. 

Oil check

Shell evacuates workers from offshore platform.

Six out of nine workers who were evacuated from a Shell-operated platform in the Gulf of Mexico tested positive for the coronavirus, the Times-Picayune reports.

“There have been about 100 known cases of COVID-19 among offshore workers in the U.S. since the pandemic began, according to the National Ocean Industries Association. That's out of 25,000 workers who rotate offshore,” per the report. 

The company implemented mandatory coronavirus testing for all personnel traveling to offshore platforms earlier this month. 

“Prior to the mandatory testing, Shell workers were required to fill out a screening questionnaire before they were flown to offshore platforms by helicopter,” according to the newspaper. “The company also extended the length of stay on production platforms from 14 days to 21 days. Those who work on drilling rigs will now stay offshore for 28 days, instead of 21 days.” 

Russia has no objection to an early meeting date for OPEC and its allies.

The meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its partners was planned for June 9-10 but is being moved forward to June 4, Reuters reports, “to facilitate oil sales for countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait.”

“The lack of Russian opposition to an earlier date could indicate that it is moving closer to an agreement with OPEC’s de facto leader, Saudi Arabia, on how to extend oil production cuts for the rest of the year,” Reuters adds.

Climate solutions

The Empire State Building’s owners set out to cut carbon emissions and save money at the same time. The plan succeeded. 

The building’s major retrofit cut down on its carbon footprint by about 40 percent and dropped its annual electric bill by $4.4 million, Sarah Kaplan reports. The project is “well on its way to paying for itself more than twice over."

How can you apply the same strategies to make your home as energy efficient? The key steps are to improve insulation; increase indoor efficiency including by unplugging outlets and devices when they’re not in use; and downsizing water heaters or air-conditioning units. 

Extra mileage

Astronauts soared into space from U.S. soil again. 

A SpaceX spacecraft carrying a pair of NASA astronauts successfully docked with the International Space Station on Sunday, Christian Davenport and Jacob Bogage report.

On May 30, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule separated from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage booster and entered a stable low-Earth orbit. (The Washington Post)