with Paulina Firozi
The Senate approved a bill that would funnel billions of dollars to fixing roads, trails and other infrastructure in national parks and on other public lands, as well as expanding their size.
Backers of the bill, called the Great American Outdoors Act, hailed it as one of the most significant pieces of conservation legislation in decades. It is also a bit of bipartisan lawmaking that has become rare in an increasingly polarized Washington.
“People are accustomed to politicians exaggerating,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the bill's backers, told reporters Wednesday. But, he added, “the action that the Senate today is the most significant step to being good stewards of our great outdoors that has been taken in at least a half a century."
The bill cleared the GOP-controlled chamber, which was the bill’s biggest hurdle, by a 73-to-25 margin. The measure is now likely to become law.
The bill would accomplish two long-sought goals of conservationists.
The package would create a new, $9.5 billion pool of money to address a backlog of maintenance work at national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.
The National Park Service, the main beneficiary of the new restoration fund, says it has a nearly $12 billion list of leaking pipes, potholed roads and other work that needs to be done. The bill authorizes the new program for five years.
The legislation would also put $900 million a year into the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That popular but perennially starved-for-cash program helps pay for everything from adding to vast wilderness areas to building neighborhood baseball diamonds.
Both programs are paid for through the royalties the government collects on oil and gas drilling operations on federal lands and waters.
It was only a year ago when reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund lapsed during the partial government shutdown.
Land Tawney, head of the conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said that neglect by Congress spurred sportsmen in his organization and elsewhere to press lawmakers to fully fund the program.
“The sunset galvanized the grass roots,” he said.
The 2020 election — and two vulnerable GOP senators — really got the ball rolling on the bill.
Congressional Democrats have long supported full funding for the LWCF. But the public lands package got traction in Congress, even as the country is gripped by both the coronavirus pandemic and protests over police brutality, due in large part to the upcoming election.
Two of the bill's sponsors, Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), successfully pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to give the bill floor time — and they helped convince President Trump to promise to sign it should it reach his desk.
Both were eager to notch legislative victories because they are up for reelection in November, each potentially against Democrats who have already won statewide office. Former governor John Hickenlooper is seeking the Democratic nomination in Colorado, while Gov. Steve Bullock has thrown his hat into the ring in the Montana race.
The 2020 election aside, Daines said lawmakers have been working on this legislation for many years.
“I think it's very important to remember, this has been a long journey,” he told reporters.
The bill has wide support — with a few notable detractors.
Virtually every major environmental group supported the bill. So too does the oil and gas industry, happy to take credit for providing money to fix parks.
“It highlights the role we already play in conservation,” said Kathleen Sgamma, head of the Western Energy Alliance.
Despite that support, nearly half of Senate Republicans voted against the bill.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), long skeptical of the LWCF, decried the idea of the U.S. government seizing more land in states such as his, where federal agencies control nearly two out of every three acres.
And some Southern representatives, such as Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), wanted more money to go toward shoreline restoration along the Gulf of Mexico, where so much oil drilling that generates money for the programs takes place.
“The Senate missed an opportunity to invest in coastal resiliency to protect against flooding and hurricanes,” Cassidy said. “The coast needs this money for its communities to survive. This fight is not over.”
The next hurdle is the House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to take it up before July 4, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Here's what Trump said after meeting Gardner and Daines in February.
I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands. ALL thanks to @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines, two GREAT Conservative Leaders!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 3, 2020
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
A note to readers: The Energy 202 will not publish Friday in honor of Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Here's an explainer by Karen Attiah, Washington Post Global Opinions editor, about its significance.
More than a dozen Democrats sent a letter calling for the removal of Douglas Domenech, an assistant Interior Department secretary.
The letter follows a pair of ethics investigations by the department’s internal watchdog that found Domenech “took advantage of his position” by using his role to try to get a family member a job at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“That report followed a December investigation that admonished Domenech for meeting with his former employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which at the time was suing two Interior agencies,” the Hill reports.
“You have not held Mr. Domenech accountable in any meaningful way, even after the second OIG report of his violations,” read a letter from 13 lawmakers led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
Global warming watch
Dow Inc. announced new targets to tackle climate change and reduce plastic waste.
“Like other companies responsible for large emissions, such as oil giants Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc, Dow has set itself on a path to be carbon neutral by 2050,” Bloomberg News reports. “Since 2006, Dow has managed to cut 5 million metric tons of annual carbon emissions even while growing in size. In its new plan, the company is committing to cut another 5 million metric tons of annual emissions by 2030.”
But some say it doesn’t match the goals of the Paris climate deal, which has become a benchmark for global targets on climate action.
Nate Aden, who leads the World Resources Institute’s work on the chemicals industry, told Bloomberg News the company is “moving in a direction of increased ambition… But 5 million metric tons is, frankly, a drop in the bucket for Dow. It is clearly not sufficient for aligning with the Paris agreement.”
Lyft says it will move to all-electric vehicles by 2030.
The ride-hailing company announced that within the decade, every vehicle used on its rental car and ride-hailing platform will be electric, Reuters reports.
The company will not provide financial help to its drivers to switch from gas powered to electric cars, but will seek to "push competitors, lawmakers and automakers to make it easier for drivers to switch to electric vehicles by creating financial incentives,” per the report.
Currently, electric cars make up less than 1 percent of the Lyft vehicle fleet.
Tesla registrations are down in California.
There has been a 37 percent drop in the number of registrations of newly purchased Tesla vehicles in April and May, according to research firm Dominion Enterprises, the Wall Street Journal reports.
It’s a first glimpse that explains “how the U.S. quarantining measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus affected domestic demand for the Silicon Valley auto maker. It initially seemed more immune to problems than rivals when it posted a surprise first-quarter profit,” per the report.
The gas industry is paying influencers on Instagram to push gas stoves.
They’re highlighting “natural gas flames” and suggesting gas stoves provide “better cooking results” and “help cook food faster,” Mother Jones reports. It’s all part of a “carefully orchestrated campaign dreamed up by marketers for representatives with the American Gas Association and American Public Gas Association, two trade groups that draw their funding from a mix of investor- and publicly owned utilities.”
Personalities on social media have been hired since at least 2018 to publish more than 100 sponsored posts about the stoves.
“What the polished posts don’t mention is that those perfectly charred tacos and fast weeknight meals come at a steep price: Gas stoves expose tens of millions of people in the United States to levels of pollution so high that they would be considered illegal outdoors,” the magazine adds.
Wildfire season is here
Wildfires are raging across parts of California and the desert Southwest, prompting evacuations in some places seeing a spike in coronavirus cases.
One fire near Phoenix became the seventh-largest fire in Arizona history by Wednesday morning.
“Located in the Tonto National Forest, the 89,058-acre Bush Fire has forced the evacuation of a number of communities, including Tonto Basin, Punkin Center, Sunflower and Apache Lake — displacing about 2,000 residents,” Matthew Cappucci and Andrew Freedman report. “…Already fraught evacuation decisions are even more complex this year due to the spread of the coronavirus. Arizona has been seeing a surge in cases, including in Maricopa and Gila counties, where evacuations are being ordered.”
A federal judge said he plans to approve PG&E’s reorganization plan.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali filed a written decision saying he would greenlight the plan this week, the Los Angeles Times reports, but as it moves to exit bankruptcy, it’s “unclear there’s anything fundamentally different about the utility.”
The reorganization plan includes conditions meant to push the company to do better.
“But PG&E is still a shareholder-owned utility, one of the nation’s largest. It is not the customer-owned cooperative envisioned by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, or the public-private entity proposed by state Sen. Scott Wiener, or the purely public utility alluded to in a Bernie Sanders campaign ad. San Francisco will not have an opportunity to buy its portion of PG&E’s electric grid,” the L.A. Times writes. “The monopoly utility will still be tasked with balancing the demands of shareholders and ratepayers as it works to deliver electricity and natural gas to 16 million people at affordable rates…"