Overnight Energy: Puerto Rico officials defend Whitefish deal before Congress | US wants level playing field at UN climate summit | House passes flood insurance overhaul

Overnight Energy: Puerto Rico officials defend Whitefish deal before Congress | US wants level playing field at UN climate summit | House passes flood insurance overhaul
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PUERTO RICO OFFICIALS DEFEND WHITEFISH DEAL: Top Puerto Rico officials defended the territory's response to Hurricane Maria, telling a Senate committee on Tuesday that they worked quickly to try and repair the island's electric grid.

The head of the island's state-run energy utility said their original decision to grant a large grid repair contract to a small Montana energy firm was the right one, given the promises the company made to the island.

"I authorized the Whitefish [Energy] contract while we continued to seek additional assistance from others for the complete, multibillion-dollar restoration effort still to come," Ricardo Ramos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He testified after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) spoke to the committee Tuesday morning.

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"My priority was securing the immediate assistance of first responders that we desperately needed," he said.

Lawmakers, government watchdogs and investigators have scrutinized Puerto Rico's $300 million repair contract with Whitefish Energy, a Montana firm which only had two employees when Maria hit the island on Sept. 20. Whitefish has charged high fees for repair work on the island, and the Trump administration has distanced itself from the deal.

Senators on Tuesday questioned why the island didn't move faster to enter into the mutual aid agreements, which traditionally cost less than private-sector work.

"The notion that someone comes in there to gouge the Puerto Rico government and the U.S. taxpayer, charging them an exorbitant rate, and then writing them a contract so they can't be reviewed properly, is a great injustice to the U.S. taxpayer," Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments Live coverage: Senate Republicans pass tax bill MORE (D-Wash.) said.

But Ramos said a private-sector deal -- or one backed by federal emergency management agencies -- offered Puerto Rico the promise to repair the island's grid more quickly than mutual aid agreements.

Ramos said the contract offered by Whitefish was the most preferable because Puerto Rico didn't need to make a large downpayment, something it couldn't afford to do because of the island's poor finances.

"After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, I believed PREPA was unable to meet the requirements for mutual aid" set by outside agencies, Ramos said.

"I needed people that were self-contained, military-unit types that could bring their diesel, that could bring their food -- everything -- and act as first responders," he said.

Read more here.

 

Rossello before the House: Later in the day, Rosselló headed to the House side of Capitol Hill, where Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopRyan picks his negotiating team for tax cut bill Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments Five things to know about Trump's national monuments order MORE (R-Utah) said Puerto Rico suffers from a "credibility gap" in asking for more disaster aid.

Bishop said Puerto Rico's government needs to overcome a perception -- based on problems such as the botched $300 million utility repair contract with Whitefish Energy -- that it can't handle the $94.4 billion in funds Rossello asked for Monday.

"One of the things that I think we're walking into here is a tremendous credibility gap, based on Whitefish and other subsequent decisions that are going on there," Bishop told Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello at the Tuesday hearing.

"You're asking for an unprecedented $94 billion. That's a lot of money. That's not going to happen unless people are going to see some changes in the way cooperation is made, and the way that money's going to be spent."

Rossello largely used the hearing to demonstrate to lawmakers that Puerto Rico's government can handle the money he wants.

"We can certainly manage it. We've established an office based on the best practices of other offices from other jurisdictions," he said.

"We believe in controls. We're actively pursuing controls. We're open to transparency."

But Rossello also pushed back at the notion that the federal Oversight Board that Congress established last year to oversee the island's finances through debt reorganization, should get the power to oversee the federal funds.

"What we don't want is that the sovereign powers of the government of Puerto Rico over this oversight board would get expanded and start nullifying what it is that the people of Puerto Rico democratically elected," he said.

Read more here.

 

US LOOKS TO PRESSURE CHINA, OTHERS AT COP23: President Trump's chief official at the United Nations climate summit said Tuesday his top priority at the meeting is ensuring all nations, including large polluters such as China, play the same role in international climate change deals.

"We want to make sure that we do what we can to avoid bifurcation," George David Banks, Trump's special assistant for international energy and environment, told reporters in Bonn, Germany, on Tuesday, according to Climate Home News.

"Bifurcation is a major flaw in the framework convention, and we certainly don't want to see it in the Paris agreement," he said. "So I would say that's probably the No. 1 priority."

Banks is referring to the structure of the underlying international deal setting the course for United Nations work on the climate.

That agreement includes different classes of countries, with major economies -- such as the United States -- committing to work more aggressively to address climate change than other nations.

The Paris deal does not present that format. Instead, nations agree to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as much as they determine they can.

Even so, some countries this week have looked to institute a tiered structure to the Paris deal's reporting requirements, a position rejected by the U.S. and European negotiators.

Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union climate commissioner, said Tuesday that European officials believe "we should follow what we agreed in Paris."

"It's very clear that there are some countries that still think that the binary approach should continue," he said, Climate Home News reported.

"But we cannot go to the old story of the annexes. For sure this is going to be a difficult topic," he said.

Read more here.

 

State switches out delegation head: The State Department said Tuesday that Thomas Shannon, under secretary for political affairs, won't be able to make it to the Bonn talks, where he was supposed to lead the United States' delegation to the negotiations.

In a statement, State cited a "family emergency" in saying Shannon wouldn't attend. Instead, Judith Garber, acting assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, will lead the contingent from Wednesday through Friday.

 

HOUSE PASSES FLOOD INSURANCE BILL: The House on Tuesday passed a bill to renew and overhaul the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) after months of negotiations between fiscal conservatives and lawmakers from coastal areas.

Called the 21st Century Flood Reform Act, the bill renews the debt-riddled NFIP for five years, updates federal flood mapping requirements, and seeks to bolster and emerging private flood insurance market.

The bill passed 237 to 189, mostly along party lines, a week after Republicans struck a deal over proposed increases to flood insurance premium caps. That provision is one of several included in the bill meant to reduce the financial burden on NFIP, which faces more than $30 billion in debt.

The overall reform efforts are focused on lowering flood insurance rates, boosting the private flood insurance market, modernizing flood zone mapping and encouraging flood mitigation practices for homebuilders and land developers.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Read more here.

 

ON TAP WEDNESDAY I: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to consider a bill opening the door to drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The bill is the product of the Senate's budget resolution, which directs the committee to find $1 billion in revenue, which is key to a GOP tax reform proposal.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling MORE (R-Alaska) introduced the bill last week. It would direct the Interior Department to hold drilling lease sales for up to 800,000 acres of land in ANWR, with the federal government and Alaska sharing any potential royalties from production there. It would raise $1.092 billion over ten years.

Democrats have vowed to fight any effort to drill in ANWR.

 

ON TAP WEDNESDAY II: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee meets to discuss "American leadership in reducing air emissions through innovation."

 

Rest of Wednesday's agenda ...

The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on four bills related to the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

AROUND THE WEB:

Dominion Energy Inc. plans to ask regulators for license extensions on two of its two-unit nuclear power plants in Virginia, extending their lives to 80 years, WTOP reports.

Ryan Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy, has been allowed to go to a halfway house before his Nevada trial, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports.

Automaker BMW will get 100 percent of its power from renewable or clean sources by 2020, the company said in Bonn, Bloomberg reports.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Check out Tuesday's stories ...

-GOP chairman cites 'credibility gap' in Puerto Rico recovery

-House passes bill to renew, overhaul federal flood insurance

-Trump adviser: No easy path for poor countries in Paris climate pact

-Puerto Rico officials defend Whitefish contract before Congress

-Senate Democrats want watchdog to launch probe into Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossOvernight Finance: House passes sweeping tax bill in huge victory for GOP | Senate confirms banking regulator | Mulvaney eyed for interim head of consumer agency Wilbur Ross sued by former colleagues Bloomberg drops estimate of Commerce secretary's wealth to 0M MORE

-Lawyers warned Puerto Rico utility against Whitefish contract

 

Please send tips and comments to Timothy Cama, tcama@thehill.com and Devin Henry dhenry@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Timothy_Cama@dhenry@thehill