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The Climate 202

Cabinet officials spend Earth Week with vulnerable Democrats

The Climate 202

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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! In honor of Earth Day, our colleagues Sarah Kaplan and Brady Dennis will be answering readers' questions about climate change today at 1 p.m. Eastern. You can tune in here. 🌎 But first:

Biden's top environmental officials appeared with vulnerable Democrats this week

Two of President Biden's Cabinet secretaries spent Earth Week visiting the districts of congressional Democrats facing potentially tough reelection races.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan on Tuesday toured the hometown of Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), while Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Thursday made a trip to Southern California with Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.).

While experts said the appearances did not violate a federal law barring government officials from engaging in political activities, the events highlight Democrats' anxiety about heavy losses in the midterms, which would probably prevent the passage of ambitious climate legislation.

“I'm terrified of the possibility of a Republican takeover and watching our last chance for climate action just wither away,” said RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote and a Democratic National Committee delegate.

“I think every Democratic member of Congress welcomes a trip by any member of the Cabinet to anywhere in the country,” Miller added.

While many news outlets focused on Biden's appearance in Portland, Ore., on Thursday with Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), here's what to know about the two Cabinet secretaries' trips and their political implications:

Regan in the Buckeye State

Regan this week embarked on a three-day tour of Ohio and Wisconsin to tout the bipartisan infrastructure law, including its initiative to cover the cost of replacing lead water lines in homes, schools and businesses.

The EPA chief on Tuesday stopped in Toledo, where he and Kaptur visited the home of Karen George, who recently learned that she had lead pipes in her house.

“Creating the resources so that people like Mrs. George don't have to come out of pocket and spend $3,000 to replace lead service lines, it means the world to us,” Regan said, according to WTOL, a local television station.

Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in House history, has represented her Toledo-area district for nearly four decades, during which she has championed funding for the Great Lakes. She was also an early supporter of establishing a Civilian Climate Corps, which would put thousands of young people to work fighting climate change.

Kaptur faces her toughest reelection race yet because of redistricting. FiveThirtyEight ranked the race as leaning in favor of Republicans, while Cook Political Report called the race a toss-up.

The Hatch Act

A federal law called the Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job. But Kathleen Clark, an expert on legal ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, said that Regan didn't violate the law because he didn't advocate for Kaptur's reelection or plan the trip around her campaign.

“If a Cabinet secretary starts talking at an official event about why people should reelect this member of Congress, that absolutely would be a violation,” she said.

Asked for comment, EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said in an email to The Climate 202: “Every event on Administrator Regan’s schedule is vetted to ensure compliance with all ethics obligations, including the Hatch Act. Administrator Regan and staff are committed to upholding these obligations and will take necessary steps to continue compliance, in close coordination with the Agency’s ethics officials.”

Carroll added that the same ethical standards apply to Regan's appearance in South Carolina on Friday with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), as well as his trip to North Carolina on Monday and Tuesday.

It's not unprecedented for EPA chiefs to visit competitive districts. Andrew Wheeler, who led the EPA under President Donald Trump, traveled to battleground states to champion his boss's environmental record ahead of the 2020 election.

Investigators also found that Trump interior secretary Ryan Zinke broke the law by tweeting out a picture of himself wearing socks adorned with the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” (The Office of Special Counsel also documented Hatch Act violations during the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush).

Granholm in Southern California

Meanwhile, Granholm on Thursday visited the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station about 20 miles south of Laguna Beach. While the plant has been decommissioned, spent nuclear fuel is still stored at the site, prompting concern from some residents.

The secretary was joined by Levin, who faces a competitive race for a third term. Seven candidates, including three well-established Republicans, are challenging Levin in the June 7 primary election.

“The trip was an opportunity to provide an update on the Administration’s ongoing efforts to responsibly manage the nation’s spent nuclear fuel,” Energy Department spokeswoman Charisma Troiano said in an email.

“This is an official event and there are no political activities associated with the Secretary’s visit, and accordingly no Hatch Act concerns,” she added.

Pressure points

Biden to issue executive order to protect old-growth forests

President Biden will sign an executive order on Friday in Seattle to protect some of the nation's biggest and oldest trees, according to five individuals briefed on the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not yet finalized, The Washington Post's Anna Phillips scooped.

Biden will direct the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to identify threats facing mature and old-growth forests and develop policies to protect them, three of the individuals said.

The executive order, however, will not ban logging of mature and old-growth trees. And it will not go as far as legislation from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to restrict the trade of goods tied to forest clearing, such as palm oil and beef.

Mature and old-growth trees — generally 80 and older — can sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide. In February, more than 70 environmental groups launched a campaign calling on Biden to protect mature trees on federal land from logging. However, timber companies are likely to oppose any new limits on their access to federal forests.

International climate

COP26 President Alok Sharma warns that war in Ukraine is taking up ‘bandwidth’ before COP27

Alok Sharma, the president of last year's United Nations climate summit in Scotland, on Thursday warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is preoccupying world leaders, who must also deliver on pledges from the summit, known as COP26.

“There is no doubt that a lot of international bandwidth, particularly at the leader level, has been taken up by Vladimir Putin's illegal, and frankly brutal, invasion of Ukraine. And that's completely understandable,” Sharma told a small group of reporters, including your Climate 202 host, at the British Embassy in Washington.

“Nevertheless, the work on ensuring that commitments are delivered upon from COP26 is continuing,” he added.

Sharma was in Washington this week for meetings at the World Bank about mobilizing public and private finance to accelerate countries' energy transitions. He told reporters that he hoped to replicate a deal announced at COP26 in which wealthy countries agreed to provide $8.5 billion to speed South Africa's transition away from coal.

Corporate commitments

How to distinguish meaningful corporate climate pledges from ‘greenwashing’

As pressure mounts on businesses to act on climate change, corporations have unleashed a wave of pledges to reduce emissions. But for the average consumer, it can be difficult to determine whether these commitments are just “greenwashing” — environmental marketing with little or no substance behind it.

To help consumers make sense of these claims on Earth Day, The Washington Post’s Douglas MacMillan spoke with environmental experts and collected their best tips on how to approach corporate climate pledges with a critical eye. 

Many experts cautioned that “net zero” pledges can be incomplete if they don't include Scope 3 emissions, or those generated by a company's customers and suppliers. Some warned that a claim of “carbon neutral” usually means a business has relied on carbon offsets, whose true benefits can be difficult to measure.

For instance, the NewClimate Institute, a German organization that promotes measures to slow Earth’s warming, found that many of Google's offset projects have “highly questionable environmental integrity" because some of them might have happened without Google’s involvement.

Agency alert

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission looks to tackle transmission challenges

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday took the next step in its effort to address a thorny problem for renewable energy: America’s lack of transmission lines.

The commission voted 4 to 1 to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking, a bureaucratic step along the way to a final rule changing how transmission gets planned and paid for. Under the proposed changes, transmission providers would have to do more long-term planning, looking at least 20 years ahead and considering the likelihood that climate change will test the grid with increasingly extreme weather.

Republican Commissioner James Danly, who has opposed efforts to expand renewable power, was the only member of the commission to vote against the proposed changes. Democratic Commissioner Allison Clements acknowledged that “reaching agreement on this proposal wasn’t easy.”

On the Hill

American Petroleum Institute floats carbon tax proposal

The American Petroleum Institute, the nation's largest oil industry trade group, has drafted a proposal urging Congress to adopt a carbon tax, which would put a surcharge on gasoline and other fossil fuels to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the Wall Street Journal's Timothy Puko and Ted Mann report.

The trade group's climate committee approved the draft proposal last month, according to a document reviewed by the Journal. But some members of the group want to delay the proposal until after the midterm elections, fearing it could alienate some Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Garret Graves (La.), the top Republican on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, slammed the measure on Thursday, saying it could further raise gas prices amid the war in Ukraine.

“It is mind-boggling that anyone could look at the current state of affairs and conclude that putting an additional tax on American gasoline and energy is a solution for anything,” Graves said in a statement, adding, “This idea is just idiotic right now.”

In the atmosphere

Viral

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