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Democrats urge support for EPA union, testing Biden's pro-labor pledge

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Shanah tovah to all readers observing Rosh Hashanah.

Below, we have an interview with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) about his permitting reform bill courtesy of our colleagues at The Early 202. (Sign up for The Early 202 here.) But first:

Exclusive: Biden vowed to be ‘the most pro-union president.' Congressional Democrats are testing that pledge.

More than 80 congressional Democrats are calling on the Biden administration to support the proposals from the Environmental Protection Agency's largest union during ongoing contract negotiations, according to details shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

In a letter sent Monday to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, the Democrats urged the agency's political leadership to accept the requests of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents more than 7,500 EPA employees.  

“At a time when EPA is administering historic levels of funding, it is imperative that EPA’s career employees are supported by the agency’s political leadership,” the lawmakers wrote. “Improving the rights and protections of EPA employees is critical to recruit and retain the talented and diverse workforce needed to fulfill the agency’s mission to address climate change, enhance environmental justice, and protect public health and the environment.”

The letter poses a key test of President Biden's effort to position himself as the “the most pro-union president” in American history. The union and its allies are trying to leverage that pledge — as well as the administration's desire to quickly implement the climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act — to secure its goals at the bargaining table.

The letter was led by Reps. Paul Tonko (N.Y.) and Diana DeGette (Colo.). Signatories include Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.).

Marie Owens Powell, president of AFGE Council 238, said in an interview that she was “thrilled” to gain the lawmakers' support. She added that the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act has injected a “sense of urgency” into the contract talks.

“We cannot afford to lose any more of our current workforce,” Powell said. “They have the knowledge that we need to pass on to the newer folks coming in with this increase in funds.”

Asked for comment, EPA Principal Deputy Associate Administrator Nancy Grantham said in an email: “We will review the letter. EPA’s unions are central to a thriving workforce and the agency is committed to a positive and productive working relationship with our union partners.”

Promotions, blind hiring

In the letter, the Democrats raised concern that some EPA employees are being passed over for promotions. In particular, they wrote that many employees seem to be stagnating at the GS-12 level, despite performing the work of a GS-13.

“The practice of keeping employees at a GS-12, with pay and benefits of a GS-12, will only risk draining the EPA’s workforce as employees seek better opportunities with room for growth in the private sector,” the letter says.

The Democrats also urged the agency's political leadership to accept the union's proposals regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), including the use of blind hiring practices, in which candidates' personal information is removed from their résumés.

“Using a blind hiring practice will prevent implicit bias from creeping into hiring decisions, while ensuring a workforce that is diverse in backgrounds and ideas,” the lawmakers wrote.

The union has asked for a DEI and accessibility article to be included in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. While the agency has agreed to include such an article, “the devil is always in the details,” Powell said.

Biden vs. Trump

AFGE and the agency have a June 2024 deadline for hammering out a new contract. But Powell said the union wants to finalize the contract “as soon as possible” to lock in protections before a potential change in administration, should a less labor-friendly candidate win the 2024 presidential election.

Overall, Powell said the Biden administration has been much more accommodating during the contract talks than the Trump administration, which cracked down on federal worker unions and limited the use of paid work hours for union activities.

The crackdown was particularly acute at the EPA, where the political leadership imposed a contract in 2019 over AFGE's protests that reduced telework, curtailed the grievance process and forced union officials out of agency office space.

“AFGE's position is that we are a reminder to the agency of the president's clear pro-labor direction,” Powell said. “So we have to continuously challenge the agency to think outside of the box and outside of the previous administration's direction.”

On the Hill

Manchin says he has well over 40 Democrats backing permitting reform

Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) is “very optimistic” about passing his permitting reform legislation as part of a stopgap funding bill this week to prevent a government shutdown, the senator said in an interview Sunday evening with our colleagues Leigh Ann Caldwell and Theodoric Meyer of The Early 202.

When asked if he has the support of at least 40 Democrats, Manchin said, “Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. Yeah. I'm hoping for 48 [Democratic votes] but 45 would be a very nice number.”

The permitting bill, which would speed up the approval process for new energy projects, has faced strong opposition from both parties in recent weeks, with Republicans hesitant to support Manchin in part because of his eventual vote for the Inflation Reduction Act.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has scheduled a procedural vote for Tuesday evening on the legislative vehicle for the government funding bill. The measure will need 60 votes to advance, meaning it will need 10 or more Republican votes, depending on how many Democrats vote against the proposal.

Manchin said he spent much of the weekend trying to rally GOP support. One of the senators he tried to reach was Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), his Republican counterpart on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who said that he is still unsure of how he will vote, but he is not completely on board with the permitting bill.

“I have reservations about Manchin's proposal because it's really good for West Virginia and it's actually bad for Wyoming,” Barrasso said in an interview Sunday.

Agency alert

EPA unveils office to place environmental justice at agency’s core

The Environmental Protection Agency on Saturday announced the creation of an Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, one of the most visible efforts so far by the Biden administration to ensure that the well-being of disadvantaged communities is an essential part of federal decision-making, Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post.  

“It will improve our ability to infuse equity, civil rights and environmental justice into every single thing we do,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during remarks Saturday in Warren County, N.C., the site of 1982 protests that birthed the nation’s environmental justice movement.

The new office, which will have hundreds of staffers and a Senate-confirmed director, will combine three existing offices at the EPA, ultimately increasing its budget to $100 million and elevating the issue on the agency’s organizational chart.

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act authorizes billions in grants targeting environmental justice, including funds for cleaning up ports and rail yards and increasing air-quality monitoring near schools and vulnerable populations — all of which will be overseen by the new EPA office.

Extreme events

Ian strengthens to hurricane as it churns toward Florida

The National Hurricane Center upgraded Ian to a hurricane early Monday, as the storm intensifies and churns toward the coast of Florida, where it could make landfall later this week, The Post's Dan Diamond reports.

But first, Ian is set to slam western Cuba on Monday night, bringing “significant wind and storm surge impacts,” according to the center's latest advisory.

On Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) placed the entire state under a state of emergency and warned that residents in the hardest-hit areas should brace for fuel disruptions, power outages and even evacuation orders.

Ian is the sixth named storm to form in September after zero storms were named in August. Although scientists have not found a link between the number of major storms and human-caused climate change, warming waters are proven to cause the storms that do form to be wetter, stronger and more prone to rapid intensification.

On the Hill this week

In addition to the drama over Manchin's permitting reform legislation, here's what we have on tap this week:

On Wednesday: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold previously postponed votes on multiple nominees, including Joseph Goffman to lead the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Air and Radiation and six candidates to be members of the board of directors for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Immediately afterward, the panel will hold a hearing on reauthorization of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields program.

On Thursday: The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on the benefits of the climate investments in the Inflation Reduction Act.

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will also hold a hearing on bipartisan legislation from Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and James E. Risch (R-Idaho) aimed at cleaning up abandoned hard rock mines.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee will vote on legislation to reauthorize U.S. fishing laws, which haven't been updated in 15 years and don't mention climate change. The measure is co-sponsored by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and newly elected Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska).

On Friday: The House Natural Resources Committee will hold an oversight hearing on Puerto Rico's beleaguered power grid. The hearing comes after Hurricane Fiona knocked out power across the entire island.

In the atmosphere

Viral

An oldie but a goodie from Michael Scott: 😂

Thanks for reading!

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