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The Climate 202

Biden’s Energy and Interior chiefs hit the Hill. Here’s what to know.

The Climate 202

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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Congrats to our Washington Post colleague Jeff Stein for receiving a 9/10 from Room Rater. (We agree the plants work with the space.) But first:

Biden’s Energy and Interior chiefs hit the Hill. Here’s what to know.

Yesterday featured a flurry of activity on climate and energy policy on Capitol Hill, with at least four hearings and news conferences scheduled around the same time. 

The jam-packed day kicked off with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland testifying before the House Appropriations Committee about the Biden administration's request to raise the Interior Department's budget by roughly $4 billion over current spending. Some of the increase would go toward the agency's efforts to tackle climate change.

At the same time, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to discuss the White House's desire to boost her department's budget by more than $3 billion, with a hefty increase for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Granholm later testified before the House Appropriations panel on the same topic.

Both Cabinet officials faced tough questions from Republicans about the Biden administration's efforts to wean the nation off fossil fuels and transition to clean energy, particularly as American drivers grapple with high gasoline prices amid the war in Ukraine.

We watched all three hearings — as well as Democrats' news conference on lowering gas prices and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's appearance before Senate appropriators — so you didn't have to. Here were our top takeaways:

Haaland took heat over offshore drilling

The current five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing in federal waters expires June 30, and the Interior Department is running behind schedule in drafting a new one, frustrating drilling proponents.

Rep. David Joyce (Ohio), the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, pressed Haaland on when her department intends to finalize the new plan — and when Interior will hold lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico authorized by the current plan.

Haaland responded that staff at Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management “has been working hard on this,” but that “there is a significant amount of internal work that still needs to be done.”

“There's a lot of varying and conflicting litigation that has been a complicating factor for our department,” she added.

⚖️ The legal context: Soon after taking office, President Biden announced a halt to any new federal oil and gas leasing, pending a review of the program. But a federal judge in Louisiana struck down the leasing pause in June. 

Granholm's tricky message: more oil now, less later

Granholm sought to reassure members of the Energy and Commerce panel that the Biden administration is “using every tool available” to increase oil supply amid surging gas prices, such as by releasing 1 million barrels per day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months.

She repeated that message at the subsequent Appropriations Committee hearing, saying “we have to increase supply” and noting that the Energy Department on Wednesday authorized additional exports of liquefied natural gas from planned facilities in Texas and Louisiana.

At the same time, Granholm emphasized that the nation must “accelerate the transition” to clean energy to meet ambitious climate targets under the Paris agreement.

The political context: High gas prices pose a political liability for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, with many voters concerned about inflation. Top Democrats unveiled a legislative effort on Thursday to give the Federal Trade Commission more authority to penalize oil companies that engage in price gouging, seeking to shift the blame to the fossil fuel industry.

  • “There’s no excuse for big oil companies to profiteer, to price gouge or exploit families,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a news conference announcing the forthcoming measure.
  • Previous FTC probes have uncovered no evidence of price gouging.
Manchin threw cold water on EV tax credits

While Buttigieg was the guest of honor at Thursday's Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Transportation Department's budget, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) attracted the most attention for asserting that tax credits for electric vehicles are “ludicrous” when demand outstrips supply.

“There’s a waiting list for EVs right now with the fuel price at $4,” Manchin said. “But they still want us to throw $5,000 or $7,000 or a $12,000 credit to buy an electric vehicle. It makes no sense to me whatsoever when we can’t produce the product for the people who want it, and we’re still going to pay them to take it? It’s absolutely ludicrous, in my mind.”

Buttigieg responded by citing the urgent need to address climate change “in months rather than years.”

On the Hill

Winter Olympians meet with lawmakers on a quest to ‘save our snow’

Roughly a dozen Winter Olympians headed to the Capitol on Thursday to urge lawmakers to “unfreeze” climate action, sharing stories of their love of the outdoors and how global warming is threatening their sports. 

“Naturally, climate change started to become a very big concern for me because I love all the different seasons and I love being able to go outside and just share it with people,” Jessie Diggins, who won a gold medal for cross-country skiing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, told the Climate 202. 

On a mid-November trip to the Arctic Circle during the World Cup season a couple of years ago, Diggins said seeing moss and flowers blooming along the ski trail in place of snowpack “really brought it home” for her. 

The athletes, part of the Protect Our Winters Action Fund, are calling for an emissions reduction plan, investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and an oil and gas drilling moratorium in the Arctic.

Kaitlyn Farrington, who won a gold medal in the women's half-pipe competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, told The Climate 202 that she opposed the proposed Willow drilling project in Alaska because “that is protected land and we want to see it keep being protected.”

Diggins compared the pressure of going into a race at the Games to the fight to protect the planet.

“Yes, conditions are not ideal. It seems like we're already a little bit behind,” she said. “But that doesn't mean it's impossible. And that doesn't mean that we should give up. It just means we have to go forward with courage and try everything that we can so that we know we've made our best effort.” 

Pressure points

Ocean animals could face a mass extinction from climate change, study finds

A potential mass extinction is looming beneath the waves as warming waters and shrinking oxygen levels kill marine life in their own habitats, according to a study released Thursday, The Washington Post's Sarah Kaplan reports. 

If humanity’s greenhouse emissions continue to increase, the study found, roughly a third of all ocean animals could vanish within 300 years. Oceans have absorbed nearly 90 percent of the excess heat created by humans, but because they are so vast, scientists are just beginning to understand what creatures endure there. 

Curtis Deutsch, one of the study’s co-authors, said that deoxygenation poses one of the greatest climate threats to marine life. While some organisms can adapt to higher temperatures or chase cooler waters elsewhere, without oxygen they are “just sort of stuck,” he said. 

At the same time, however, researchers said that if the world takes unprecedented action to curb fossil fuel use and restore degraded ecosystems, it could cut potential extinctions by 70 percent.

California is investigating Big Oil over plastics claims

California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Thursday launched an investigation into the fossil fuel industry's role in promoting the idea that plastics could be recycled, in an alleged effort to manipulate people to buy more of it, NPR’s Laura Sullivan reports. 

Citing a “half-century campaign of deception,” Bonta has so far subpoenaed ExxonMobil seeking information and documents. The announcement comes as environmentalists and lawmakers increasingly confront the fossil fuel industry over its financial gains from allegedly deceiving the public.

International climate

How Americans’ love of beef is helping destroy the Amazon rainforest

Cattle ranching, responsible for the majority of deforestation in the Amazon, is pushing the forest toward a tipping point. And the United States, which has repeatedly urged Brazil to end destruction of the forest — a vital carbon sink — to avert catastrophic warming, is complicit, Terrence McCoy and Júlia Ledur report as part of The Post’s ‘The Amazon, Undone’ investigative series. 

In early 2020, the United States began importing Brazilian beef, quickly becoming its second-biggest buyer, with most sales coming from the world’s largest beef producer, JBS. The beef giant has been accused by environmentalists of buying cattle raised on illegally deforested land, and in 2017 the company was even fined by Brazil’s environmental law enforcement agency because of it.

But things get murky in the rainforest. Beef producers still don’t track cattle origins, and there is no Brazilian law that directly prohibits the purchase of cattle raised on illegally deforested land. JBS has said that it prioritizes the environment by blocking ranches that aren’t up to standards, signing agreements with land advocates and publishing where its cattle come from. 

But by reviewing thousands of shipment and purchase logs, The Post found that JBS is still heavily linked to illegal deforestation. The organized destruction is hidden at the base of a long and multistep meatpacking supply chain that ties illegally deforested ranches — and ranchers accused of environmental crimes — to factories authorized by the U.S. government to export raw beef to the American consumer.

Agency alert

16 states, D.C. and climate activists sue Postal Service over gas-powered trucks

Sixteen states, D.C. and environmental groups are suing the U.S. Postal Service to block its purchase of 148,000 gas-guzzling vehicles over the next decade, The Post's Jacob Bogage scooped yesterday. 

The lawsuits filed by the state attorneys general, Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council contend that the Postal Service relied on flawed assumptions and miscalculations to justify spending as much as $11.3 billion on the new gas-powered mail trucks even before the agency began an environmental review.

The groups say that the contract’s inclusion of 10 percent new battery-powered trucks — compared with 90 percent new gas-powered ones — is insufficient and falls short of President Biden’s goals to electrify the entire federal fleet by 2035. 

In the atmosphere

Viral

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