with Alexandra Ellerbeck

He’s been in office for less than a week, but President Biden is already facing calls to use his new power to prevent people from losing their electricity, gas or water. 

Some of Biden’s allies in Congress want the federal government to stop power companies, water providers and other utilities from shutting off service for failure to pay bills to help millions of Americans struggling during the pandemic. 

Such a nationwide moratorium on utility shut-offs never came under former president Donald Trump. But its advocates say that it is just as necessary now as it was at the start of the coronavirus pandemic — and that either Congress or the White House needs to act.

“While many states and utility companies have already stepped up to do the right thing, there are still so many families who are just one missed payment away from losing critical utility access,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said. 

The pressure comes after the Biden administration extending a nationwide freeze on evictions through March. 

Biden could use that same authority to end utility shut-offs, according to a coalition of more than 600 racial justice, labor, environmental and religious organizations.

Those left-leaning groups are urging Biden to issue an executive order directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use the Public Health Service Act to prevent utilities from turning off the lights or stopping the tap, pointing to data from Duke University that local bans are linked with lower coronavirus case growth rates. 

Utilities are critical to allow people to shelter at home and stop the spread of the virus, they say. “This is a public health threat if you allow shut-offs to continue,” said Jean Su, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Another avenue would be for members of Congress to insert a shut-off ban in the next round of coronavirus stimulus. 

House Democrats included such a moratorium in a $3 trillion pandemic bill. The Senate's top Democrat, Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), and Vice President Harris, when she was a senator from California, endorsed the measure, too. The broader bill died in the GOP-led Senate after a veto threat from Trump.

The new Democratic majority in the Senate has renewed hope for a legislative solution. “Now that they have a majority, we have a renewed chance to have a moratorium passed by Congress,” said Su, who added that a moratorium could be designed to pass budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority.

The Biden administration is pushing for more economic relief, but has not yet committed to stopping shut-offs.  

The White House is proposing to spend $5 billion to cover home energy and water costs, including unpaid bills, as part of its proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus package. The new administration also has $25 billion in rental assistance in the latest coronavirus bill, passed in December, to distribute. Some of that can be used to cover utility costs.

Still, several Democratic senators are willing to see if they can get a ban passed in Congress, including through reconciliation.

“I'm for whatever it takes,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), in line to chair the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, adding that a utility shut-off moratorium “should go hand in hand” with one for evictions.

Merkley, who wrote legislation for a pandemic shut-off ban with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), wants Biden and his congressional colleagues to “use every available tool at our disposal to put in place a national disconnection moratorium.” 

But the idea of a nationwide ban have resistance from electric utilities that say the issue is better left up to state officials.

“Customers now have more flexible payment options and support programs than ever before,” said Adam Benshoff, vice president for regulatory affairs at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents the investor-owned electric utilities. “Frequently, however, customers with unpaid bills will not work with their electric companies on a payment plan until they receive a disconnection warning.”

Americans around the country are racking up big unpaid utility bills.

That amount may outstrip the aid already set aside as part of the rental assistance money in December. The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association had projected electric and gas debts alone would reach or exceed $24.3 billion by the end of last year.

Tracking the exact number of disconnections themselves has proven to be difficult. Brown's office said it has received incomplete data from 21 utility companies from which it requested information back in October. 

After the United States saw its first cases, many states and utilities stepped in to stop shut-offs for those in arrears due to the pandemic. But now, nearly a year later, only eight states — Arkansas, California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Vermont and Washington — as well as the District of Columbia have pandemic shutoff bans in place, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Winter is now providing some reprieve. Freezing temperatures automatically trigger seasonal protections from shut-offs in many states, though the bans vary widely. 

Power plays

Biden kicks off climate diplomacy with the United Kingdom and Canada.

Biden discussed climate change with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in some of his first calls with foreign leaders as president. 

Biden and Johnson bonded over their mutual love of train travel, which led to a conversation about green energy and climate change, the Telegraph reported. An official White House readout from the call noted that the two leaders also discussed the United Kingdom’s role hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland this year.

Biden’s conversation with Trudeau on Friday, his first with a foreign leader, also touched on climate change. The two leaders expressed a desire to achieve a net-zero future, including through advancements in the automotive sector, according to the official readout from the White House. They also spoke about Biden’s decision to cancel a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. Trudeau had urged Biden not to rescind the permit. 

“The President acknowledged Prime Minister Trudeau’s disappointment regarding the decision to rescind the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and reaffirmed his commitment to maintain an active bilateral dialogue and to further deepen cooperation with Canada,” the readout states.

Top Biden climate advisers vowed to ramp up climate action in a meeting with U.S. mayors.

Gina McCarthy, the White House's national climate adviser, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that the administration had already started to roll back Trump-era climate policies and would release its forward-looking vision for combating climate change this week, Reuters reports.

Biden is planning to unveil a second round of executive orders as soon as Wednesday that will include an expansive order to combat change domestically and make the issue a national security priority, according to a memo seen by Reuters.

John F. Kerry, Biden's special climate envoy, told the gathering of mayors that the Biden administration is working to ramp up pressure on China and other countries to adopt more ambitious measures to combat climate change. 

Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency is asking the Justice Department to put a hold on litigation defending Trump-era environmental rules.

The EPA's acting general counsel, Melissa Hoffer, sent a letter to the Justice Department asking the government lawyers to pause cases in which they are defending environmental rollbacks from challenges by advocacy groups and others, the Hill reports. The Biden administration has signaled that it intends to undo many environmental policies passed by its predecessor. 

“This will confirm my request on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) seek and obtain abeyances or stays of proceedings in pending litigation seeking judicial review of any EPA regulation promulgated between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021,” Hoffer wrote in a letter obtained by the Hill.

The Trump administration rescinded or rolled back more than 170 environmental regulations, according to a Washington Post analysis. The Biden administration has so far reversed eight of these rollbacks and targeted 60 more

The Biden administration is making changes at the Department of Energy.

Incoming DOE chief of staff Tarak Shah told employees that the department will be consolidating two critical offices — one focused on basic science and the other on energy programs, E&E News reports. The combined office will be named the Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy.

The restructuring represents a return to an organizational model implemented under the Obama administration when the two offices were first combined under the same name. Ernest Moniz, Obama's energy secretary at the time, said that combining the offices would provide a more comprehensive vision for the agency’s science and technology work. The Trump administration reversed this change, however, nominating two separate undersecretaries for science and energy.

The Department of Energy told The Post that Kelly Speakes-Backman would serve as the acting head of the Energy Department’s office on renewable energy. Speakes-Backman previously served as the CEO of the national Energy Storage Association, a trade group focused on energy storage and strengthening the nation's electricity grid.

Companies are working on a coronavirus vaccine for minks.

Zoetis, a large veterinary pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, and Medgene Labs, a small company based in South Dakota, are testing vaccines in minks and seeking licensing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the New York Times reports.

Minks are known to be particularly susceptible to the novel coronavirus. Outbreaks among farmed minks in Denmark led the country to slaughter 17 million of the animals and shut down all mink farming until 2022 after scientists discovered mutated versions of the coronavirus circulating among the animals.

Mink farming is a much smaller business in the United States — around 275 farms are involved in the mink fur trade. While thousands of U.S. minks have become infected, quarantining the farms and controlling outbreaks has been left up to the states. Still, at least two infected minks have escaped from farms in the United States and one wild mink tested positive, raising fears that wild populations could become a reservoir for the virus. 

Extra mileage

Scientists discovered a new lichen — in a Florida museum. 

Researchers had originally misclassified the specimen of lichen, last collected from Florida’s Ocala National Forest and O’Leno State Park in 1985, Erin Blakemore writes for The Post. When they realized what they already had in a museum was a new species, they named it Cora timucua in honor of the Timucua people, a group of Native Floridians who were driven out of existence by disease, warfare and their enslavement by European settlers in the 18th century.

Now, researchers want to know if the lichen is still around. They are calling on the public to photograph lichen and upload their results to the Timucua Heart Lichen Project.

Correction: A previous version of The Energy 202 incorrectly stated Charles Kosack would serve as the acting head of the Energy Department’s office on renewable energy. The position of acting principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy is held by Kelly Speakes-Backman. We regret the error.