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The Climate 202

Scott Pruitt called two fossil fuel billionaires while weighing a Senate run, sources say

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Our colleague Josh Dawsey, a political investigations and enterprise reporter for The Washington Post, helped report the top of today's newsletter.

Scott Pruitt, Trump's first EPA chief, called two fossil fuel billionaires while weighing a Senate run, sources say

Scott Pruitt, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under Donald Trump before resigning under a crush of ethics scandals, called two major Republican donors while weighing a run for Senate in Oklahoma in recent weeks, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

Pruitt dialed up two billionaires who made their fortunes in the fossil fuel industry — oil tycoon Harold Hamm and coal baron Joseph W. Craft III — said the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations.

CBS News first reported last week that Pruitt was considering a run for Senate to succeed Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe, a vocal critic of climate science who announced in February that he will not finish his term and will retire at the end of the year. 

The calls to Hamm, the fracking pioneer who chairs the oil giant Continental Resources, and Craft, the president and chief executive of coal producer Alliance Resource Partners, have not previously been reported.

Craft is a longtime friend of Pruitt's. The men maintained close ties even as Craft lobbied the EPA to reverse Barack Obama's crackdown on the coal industry. In 2017, the billionaire coal executive even gave Pruitt special access to a high-profile basketball game.

Spokespeople for Continental Resources and Alliance Resource Partners did not respond to requests for comment. Mandy Gunasekara, who previously worked for Inhofe and served as chief of staff at the EPA under Pruitt, also did not respond to a call seeking comment.

A series of scandals

Pruitt served as Oklahoma attorney general before taking the helm of the EPA, where he took steps to reverse more than a dozen major Obama-era regulations. He stepped down as EPA chief in July 2018 after controversies over his lavish spending, ethical lapses and management decisions. 

Among the controversies:

The House Oversight and Reform Committee had launched more than a dozen federal inquiries into Pruitt’s spending and management of the EPA. But most of those investigations were inconclusive because Pruitt resigned before they were completed.

While Republicans in Congress grew tired of defending Pruitt from scandals, GOP primary voters in Oklahoma may be willing to overlook the controversies, said Amber England, an Oklahoma political strategist.

“Although Pruitt was not popular nationally, I'm not certain that carries into state party politics,” England told The Climate 202. 

“I'm certain that Oklahomans keep up with what's going on nationally,” she said. “But I think that Oklahomans in general have supported President Trump very strongly and would probably view Scott Pruitt as a friend to Donald Trump.”

A crowded primary

If Pruitt decides to run for Senate in Oklahoma, he will join a crowded GOP primary field to succeed Inhofe, who infamously brought a snowball onto the Senate floor during a frigid day in Washington to falsely claim that climate change is a hoax.

The other Republicans who have announced their candidacy are:

  • Rep. Markwayne Mullin (Okla.)
  • Former speaker of the Ohio House T. W. Shannon, who told supporters that he spoke to Trump this month
  • Oklahoma state Sen. Nate Dahm
  • Luke Holland, Inhofe's former chief of staff

On the Democratic side, former congresswoman Kendra Horn (Okla.), who lost her reelection bid in 2020, is also running for the seat.

England said that while many GOP candidates will probably try to paint Democrats as pursuing a radical climate agenda that could destroy jobs in the oil and gas industry, Oklahoma voters could embrace a candidate who calls for climate action.

“I think with the right approach, there is a message that can resonate with folks who depend on oil and gas for jobs to feed their families, but also understand that we have to look to the future for how we're going to protect our planet,” she said.

Pruitt has until April 15 to decide whether to enter the race. The primary is scheduled for June 28.

International climate

Forest fires near Chernobyl nuclear plant site raise radiation fears, Ukraine says

At least seven forest fires broke out around the closed Chernobyl nuclear site, Ukraine’s parliament said Monday, escalating fears that radiation could spread from the facility, Adela Suliman, David L. Stern and Steven Mufson report for The Post.  

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s natural resources minister, Ruslan Strelets, told the Associated Press that the fires had been extinguished and that radiation levels are normal.  

The smoke from forest fires can carry radioactive material trapped in the soil around the nuclear site into other areas, presenting a “cause for international concern," according to research from the Center for Security Studies published last year.

“Such wildfires produce uncontainable, airborne and hazardous smoke, which potentially carries radioactive material,” the research found. With climate change, “nuclear wildfires present a pressing yet little discussed problem” that requires urgent attention, the study said.

The war has taken a toll on Ukraine’s environmental movement

Last year, Natalia Gozak, executive director of Ecoaction, one of Ukraine’s biggest environmental nonprofits, helped launch Ukraine’s largest climate march. Today, however, her life looks much different after fleeing Kyiv to escape Russian aggression.

Inside Climate News’s Kristoffer Tigue sat down with Gozak and asked what remains of Ukraine’s once-vibrant environmental community amid the war. 

“What I’ve seen in these four weeks is the environmental community is becoming less and less. They are shrinking because other issues are important now,” Gozak said, adding that some environmental groups are shifting their focus to humanitarian aid or military volunteer support. 

Gozak added that she is helping Ukraine's Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources gather data on the environmental effects of war. 

“We collect these cases of environmental war crimes so that after we win, Russia should pay everything,” Gozak said. “Not only the social cost and infrastructure they ruin, but they should also equally pay for the damage against the environment.”

Agency alert

EPA seeks additional information about St. Croix refinery that rained oil on homes

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday told the new owners of the Limetree Bay refinery on St. Croix that they will likely need to apply for a Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit in accordance with the Clean Air Act before reopening the facility.

Liliana Villatora, air branch chief in the EPA's Region 2, wrote in a letter that “there are strong indicators to suggest that the refinery must obtain a PSD permit prior to startup of refinery operations.” 

Villatora asked the new owners of the refinery, West Indies Petroleum Limited and Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation, to provide detailed information on past and future changes to emissions units at the facility.

In May, the EPA ordered the refinery shut down after incidents that rained oil droplets on nearby homes and spewed noxious odors. The refinery also faces class-action lawsuits.

“Given the concerning incidents at this facility that previously endangered the health of the people who live and work in surrounding communities, we will carefully review the information we receive and any new plans before determining our next steps in the permitting process,” EPA Region 2 Administrator Lisa F. Garcia said in a statement.

Pressure points

Record heat wave in Antarctic brought exceptional snow, rain and melting

While Antarctic temperatures rose 70 degrees above normal last week, satellite imagery and computer models show that significant snow, rain and melting also occurred, The Post’s Kasha Patel reports. 

Amid the heat, the ice sheet experienced its fourth-wettest day in more than four decades, according to the Modèle Atmosphérique Régionale, a climate model that studies the melting of the polar ice caps.

Although additional research is needed to determine whether there’s a climate change connection to the event, researchers are comparing it to the June heat wave that roasted the Pacific Northwest, which broke temperature records by 10 degrees or more in some areas. 

The heat event in Antarctica “was something that wasn’t thought to be possible until it actually happened. It was never observed before, and the atmosphere patterns that led to it happening were just not thought to be possible either until it happens,” said Jonathan Wille, a researcher studying polar meteorology at Grenoble Alpes University in France.

Disease has nearly wiped out northern long-eared bats

Fifteen years after being discovered in a New York cave, white-nose syndrome has decimated the nation’s population of northern long-eared bats, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday moved to reclassify the mammals from threatened to endangered after a review found that white-nose syndrome "is expected to affect 100 percent” of the animals by 2025. The agency added that the disease, which attacks bats as they hibernate in mines and caves, has driven 97 to 100 percent population decline. 

Viral

Our colleague Sarah Kaplan enjoyed D.C.'s cherry blossoms yesterday with a visit from a furry friend. 😍

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