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EPA needs a Senate-confirmed enforcement chief, groups say

The Climate 202

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Exclusive: Top green groups push for confirmation of EPA enforcement nominee

Five prominent environmental groups are calling on the Senate to swiftly confirm a permanent head of the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement office, according to details shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

President Biden nominated David Uhlmann more than a year ago to lead the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, which holds companies accountable when they violate the nation's environmental laws.

Now Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) must prioritize floor time for the nomination, especially after a Supreme Court ruling that limited the EPA's ability to tackle climate change, the leaders of the five green groups argue in a joint statement.

“Mr. Uhlmann is exceptionally well-qualified, and his confirmation will allow EPA to better protect vulnerable communities from the harmful effects of pollution and ensure that all Americans have access to safe drinking water,” the leaders wrote.

“His confirmation also will allow EPA to increase its efforts to enforce existing climate regulations, an immediate step that the Senate can take in the aftermath of last week’s Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA curtailing the Agency’s ability to address climate change,” they added.

The joint statement was signed by the following leaders:

  • Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund
  • Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice
  • Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters
  • Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation
  • Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council

Vickie Patton, general counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Climate 202 that the environmental groups have been in touch with Schumer's office about Uhlmann's nomination in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

“This is a defining moment where six Supreme Court justices have damaged our nation's environmental laws, and we need policymakers who will protect clean air and clean water,” Patton said in an interview Sunday. “The nomination of Mr. Uhlmann was made over a year ago, and every day of delay hurts the American people.”

Schumer's office announced Sunday that he has tested positive for covid-19 and will work remotely this week while in quarantine.

“Anyone who knows Leader Schumer knows that even if he's not physically in the Capitol, through virtual meetings and his trademark flip phone he will continue with his robust schedule and remain in near constant contact with his colleagues,” Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said in a statement.

Declining enforcement

If confirmed, Uhlmann could help reverse a worrisome drop in enforcement, according to a June 6 letter supporting his nomination from 67 former U.S. attorneys from both Republican and Democratic administrations.

  • From 2018 to 2021, there was a roughly 50 percent drop in civil inspections, criminal investigations and cases referred for prosecution compared to the average from 2002 to 2017, according to EPA data analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group.
  • “The failure to confirm an EPA enforcement chief deep into the second year of the Biden administration undermines the rule of law, public health, and environmental protection,” the former U.S. attorneys wrote.

Uhlmann has sterling credentials for the job, according to a June 2021 White House news release announcing his nomination.

  • He spent 17 years as a federal prosecutor, including seven years as chief of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department.
  • Most recently, he directed the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan Law School.
The Leahy factor

In April, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 10-10 to advance Uhlmann's nomination. Because of the tie vote, Schumer must file a petition to discharge the nomination to the Senate floor. 

However, the absence of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who had surgery after breaking his hip, has complicated Democrats' efforts to push nominations through the 50-50 Senate over Republican opposition.

Under Senate rules, Schumer probably needs the attendance of every senator to discharge Uhlmann’s nomination.

  • A Schumer spokesman said in an email to The Climate 202: “David Uhlmann’s nomination is a priority and we hope to move to discharge soon.”
  • David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, said in an email: “Senator Leahy’s recovery and physical therapy are proceeding well and he expects to be available for votes this week if necessary.”

On the Hill

Democrats see hope for spending deal with Manchin as Congress returns

As Senate Democrats return to the Capitol on Monday, party leaders are redoubling their efforts to strike a long-elusive deal with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on a climate and social spending package, The Washington Post's Tony Romm reports.

Manchin is expected to discuss the climate provisions in the package with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) early in the week, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the ongoing deliberations. The meeting may take place virtually since Schumer has tested positive for covid-19.

Party leaders hope to finalize a climate deal this week and bring the entire package to the Senate floor later this month. But the two sides remain divided over Democrats’ plans to pay producers of clean energy, a policy known as direct pay, and provide tax credits for people who buy electric vehicles. 

The talks could yield a climate package around $300 billion to $350 billion, two people familiar with the matter said. That would be a significant drop from the $555 billion in climate spending that Democrats initially preferred. But even some of Congress's most vocal climate hawks have tried to reset their expectations.

“You could look at this entire package, [and] you can compare it to what we were working on last year,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who had proposed a program to incentivize utilities to transition to clean energy. “You can compare it to that, or you can compare it to zero.”

Pressure points

How a D.C. lobbyist tried to stop Putin’s pipeline before war started

Daniel Vajdich, the founder of a tiny D.C. lobbying firm called Yorktown Solutions, has played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in efforts to stop Nord Stream 2, the Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline, Manuel Roig-Franzia reports for The Post

Vajdich, 37, is Kyiv's man in Washington. In 2017, long before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian energy sector hired his four-person firm to persuade Congress and the Trump administration to kill the controversial pipeline project. Vajdich received $2.5 million from 2017 to 2021 from Ukrainian energy producers, according to his foreign agent registration filing.

Nord Stream 2 would allow Russia to bypass pipelines in Ukraine, dealing a major blow to the former Soviet republic’s economy. While construction on Nord Stream 2 was completed in September, the German energy regulator froze the project's certification process in February, and the pipeline is now idled.

Climate activists worried after Biden releases review of Alaska oil project

The Interior Department on Friday released an environmental review of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope but declined to reveal whether it was leaning toward approving a project that has faced intense criticism from environmentalists and some Native Alaskans, The Post’s Joshua Partlow reports. 

Climate activists had hoped Interior would either sharply curtail or end the multibillion-dollar effort by the energy giant ConocoPhillips to expand oil infrastructure on the largest block of public land in the country. They argue that burning all that fossil fuel would sabotage President Biden's goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

But the draft assessment from Interior's Bureau of Land Management merely evaluated alternatives and did not indicate a preference. While the alternatives included reducing the number of drilling sites and building nothing at all, climate advocates greeted the assessment as another worrying step on the road to approval. A public comment period now ensues, followed by a final decision.

Extreme events

Yosemite wildfire doubles in size, threatens 500 giant sequoias

The Washburn Fire, which has been burning since Thursday near Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove, doubled in size Sunday and threatens more than 500 mature giant sequoia trees, Marisa Iati and Meena Venkataramanan report for The Post. 

Sequoias, native to the Sierra Nevada, can live for thousands of years. But three fires since 2020 have killed about 13 to 19 percent of the species. The current blaze has been exacerbated by a climate-change-fueled drought.

The trees are natural carbon sinks, meaning they can lock away massive amounts of the planet-warming gas. But when they burn, much of the sequestered carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to further warming. 

On the Hill this week

On Wednesday: The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry will meet to discuss the forestry provisions in the farm bill.

  • The House Natural Resources Committee will mark up several measures, including a bill from Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) that directs the Interior Department to create a National Climate Adaptation Science Center and Regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers.
  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy will meet to examine research and development opportunities within the Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management for cleaning up nuclear waste.
  • The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies will hold a hearing on the proposed budget for the Interior Department for fiscal 2023.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will meet to examine two pending bills, including the Environmental Justice Air Quality Monitoring Act, which would require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a pilot program for air quality monitoring projects in communities overburdened by climate impacts.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy will meet to discuss ways to lower gasoline prices.

On Friday: The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on efforts to create a sustainable food system that is resilient in the face of climate change.

In the atmosphere


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