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The head of the Energy Department's loans office is a key player in Biden's climate agenda

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! If you live in the D.C. area, we hope you got outside and enjoyed the record-breaking warm weather this weekend without experiencing too much climate anxiety. 🙃 But first:

The head of the Energy Department's loans office is staffing up and hyping hydrogen under Biden

Jigar Shah might be the most important man in America when it comes to boosting the nation's deployment of clean energy and meeting President Biden's ambitious climate goals — at least, besides Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and the president himself.

Shah, a former clean energy entrepreneur, is the dynamic new director of the Energy Department's Loan Programs Office, which helped launch the country’s first utility-scale wind and solar farms a decade ago but went largely dormant under Donald Trump.

Analysts say the office could play a crucial role in financing clean energy technologies and achieving Biden's goal of cutting planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 — regardless of whether Congress passes the president's stalled climate and social spending plan.

Shah, 47, is well known in the clean energy sector, having co-founded the renewable energy company SunEdison and the clean-tech infrastructure investor Generate Capital. His voice is also familiar to fans of the "Energy Gang" podcast, which he co-hosted for seven years. (Full disclosure: Maxine was a guest on the podcast in 2020.)

The Climate 202 recently spoke with Shah about his vision for the Loan Programs Office, including its roughly $40 billion in loan authority and its hiring spree under Biden. The interview came after the office announced a $1 billion conditional commitment for a loan guarantee to help a Nebraska company scale up production of "clean" hydrogen.

Here are highlights from the conversation:

Staffing up after Solyndra

Under Barack Obama, the Loan Programs Office had a high-profile success when it made a $535 million loan to Tesla, which is now the world's most valuable automaker, to open its first factory in Silicon Valley.

But the office also faced fierce criticism from Republicans in 2009, when the solar panel manufacturer Solyndra filed for bankruptcy soon after receiving $535 million in federal loans, leaving 1,100 people out of work and taxpayers on the hook.

Shah said the office has expanded significantly since the Solyndra scandal — and since Biden took office — allowing employees to closely vet proposals and detect problems early on.

"I think it's important to note that when Solyndra was approved in the office, we had 12 full-time staff. We're now up to 170," Shah said. "We can't say that we're never going to make a mistake. But I would say that our processes and procedures are far more mature today than they were when the program was really ramped up in 2009."

Shah estimated that the Loan Programs Office has 93 full-time staffers and 68 independent contractors, up from 84 full-time employees and 12 contractors when he joined the Biden administration. 

Jamie Nolan, a principal at Nolan Strategic Communications and a consultant for the Loan Programs Office, declined to confirm those specific numbers but said the office has increased its headcount by 50 percent in the past year.

Hyping hydrogen and staying out of politics

Since Shah took over in March 2021, the Loan Programs Office has received 77 applications from energy companies, with a total requested loan amount of $70.8 billion, according to Nolan.

In December, the office made its first new award in years, announcing that it would guarantee up to $1.04 billion in loans for Monolith to scale up production of clean hydrogen at an expanded plant in Nebraska.

The political angle: Manchin, the holdout vote on Biden's Build Back Better bill, and other members of West Virginia's congressional delegation are seeking to attract a similar clean hydrogen plant to their own state. The delegation met with Monolith representatives in February, a company executive confirmed. 

However, Shah emphasized that the office is not in the business of picking winners and losers based on political considerations — whether Manchin's priorities or the Biden administration's climate policies.

"If you meet the requirements of the statute, we prioritize getting your loan processed," he said. "We're not really picking certain loans that may exemplify the policies of the administration over other loans. Monolith happened to be the project that was farthest along when I came into office."

Monolith plans to use a rare technique for producing hydrogen from natural gas, known as methane pyrolysis. The process creates hydrogen, which can be used in ammonia-based fertilizers, as well as "carbon black," a kind of soot that enhances tires and other rubber products. 

Some environmentalists have questioned whether hydrogen made from natural gas, a fossil fuel, is truly “clean.” But Monolith CEO and co-founder Rob Hanson told The Climate 202 that the expanded plant would reduce carbon emissions by 1 million tons a year compared to conventional production methods.

Hanson added that Shah has brought the Energy Department's once-dormant loan program “back to its full force.”

"There's no doubt," he said, "that Jigar has turned the volume up on this program from quiet to very loud."

On the Hill

Exclusive: House Democrats to launch task force on nature, oceans

The House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition is launching a new task force today focused on natural climate solutions and the restoration of oceans and public lands, according to details shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

The Nature and Oceans Task Force will be co-chaired by Reps. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and will seek to support nature-based climate solutions such as planting trees, as well as the Biden administration's goal of conserving and restoring 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

The coalition, a group of more than 70 climate-conscious House Democrats, launched three task forces in January focused on climate and agriculture; climate and national security; and power-sector decarbonization, The Climate 202 scooped at the time.

“As Co-Chair of SEEC, I work every day with my colleagues to take a full-systems approach to critical climate and clean energy policies," Matsui said in a statement. “Natural climate solutions and the restoration of our oceans and public lands are central components to these comprehensive solutions.”

The other members of the new task force include Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree (Maine), Jared Huffman (Calif.), Suzanne Bonamici (Ore.) and Derek Kilmer (Wash.).

International climate

Blinken says a Russian oil embargo is on the table

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the United States and its allies are having a “very active discussion” about banning imports of Russian oil and natural gas, despite concerns that such a move could further raise gas prices for American drivers, The Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchik, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Annie Linskey report

Blinken said on CNN's “State of the Union” that the United States is talking to allies about "the prospect of banning the import of Russian oil while making sure that there’s still an appropriate supply of oil on world markets.” 

The Biden administration had largely played down the possibility that it would block Russian energy imports until Friday, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is “looking at options we could take right now to cut U.S. consumption of Russian energy.” 

While the United States imports less than 10 percent of its oil from Russia, a ban could accelerate a global blockage of Russian energy that would further increase U.S. gas prices. Over the weekend, gas prices topped an average of $4 per gallon, according to AAA, the first time that has happened since the 2008 financial crisis. 

Several lawmakers echoed Blinken’s remarks on Sunday, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).

Pressure points

Trump reiterated climate falsehoods in address to GOP donors

Former president Donald Trump on Saturday spoke to the GOP’s top donors, focusing heavily on Russian aggression in Ukraine and on his usual list of grievances, including calling global warming “a great hoax,” according to audio obtained by The Post’s Joshua Dawsey.

In his 84-minute speech to about 250 donors in New Orleans, Trump said “the global warming hoax, it just never ends.” He mocked the concept of sea levels rising, disputing widely held science, saying climate change is “great” because it would introduce more waterfront property. 

CERAWeek energy conference returns to Houston amid soaring oil prices

The energy industry’s biggest leaders will meet in Houston this week as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increases the price of oil and executives face growing criticism for the industry’s role in climate change, David Gaffen reports for Reuters

CERAWeek, a huge oil and gas industry conference, is expected to attract 45,000 attendees this year and will feature presentations on the transition to clean energy, including a Monday discussion with U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry

Extreme events

Wildfires along the Florida Panhandle force hundreds to evacuate

Hundreds of Florida Panhandle residents evacuated over the weekend while two massive fires scorched an area that is still recovering from the destruction of a Category 5 hurricane more than three years ago, the Associated Press reports.

The Adkins Avenue Fire has burned since Friday and was 35 percent contained as of Sunday morning. The much larger Bertha Swamp Road Fire is spreading more quickly, with only 10 percent contained Sunday morning. 

Hurricane Michael in 2018 left behind 72 million tons of downed trees that have provided fuel for the wildfires, the Florida Forest Service said. Strong winds and low humidity have also elevated the threat of fire at the start of the fire season, with 148 wildfires now burning across the state. 

Week ahead on the Hill

On Tuesday, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the government’s vulnerability and preparedness for climate risks. The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands will hold a hearing to consider pending legislation on tribal co-management of public lands. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on American manufacturing of electric vehicles. 

On Wednesday, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing titled “Confronting Climate Impacts: Federal Strategies for Equitable Adaptation and Resilience."

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