Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper

Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper
© Camille Fine

FERC CHAIRMAN PLEDGES TO AVOID POLITICS: The newly minted chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) says he is committing to keeping the agency neutral and avoiding political influence.

Neil ChatterjeeIndranil (Neil) ChatterjeeSenate should reject Trump’s radical nominee to key energy panel Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper New energy commission head pledges to avoid political influence MORE, a Republican, was tapped last week by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMia Love pulls ahead in Utah race as judge dismisses her lawsuit Trump administration denies exploring extradition of Erdoğan foe for Turkey Trump congratulates Kemp, says Abrams will have 'terrific political future' MORE to succeed Kevin McIntyreKevin J. McIntyreSenate should reject Trump’s radical nominee to key energy panel Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper New energy commission head pledges to avoid political influence MORE, another Republican, atop FERC. McIntyre will remain as a commissioner on the body, which has five spots but only four commissioners.

FERC and the companies and organizations that deal with it say they value the agency's independence and neutrality -- something which Chatterjee echoed Wednesday.

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"No one was more committed to ensure the depoliticization of the agency and not allowing political interference than Kevin McIntyre," Chatterjee told reporters Wednesday at FERC's Washington, D.C., headquarters, adding that he wants to maintain the example McIntyre set.

"There's no evidence that there's been political influence or interference at the agency," Chatterjee said.

Chatterjee pointed to one of FERC's most contentious issues: whether to require higher electricity payments to coal and nuclear power plants, as Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryTexas New Members 2019 Senate should reject Trump’s radical nominee to key energy panel Perry: We shouldn't let Russia use energy as a weapon MORE proposed last year. FERC unanimously rejected the proposal in January, but also kept the door open to future action, including inviting comments from stakeholders.

"Whatever we do is going to be fact-based, and that's something that I and my colleagues take very seriously. This will not be a politically influenced decision," he said.

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Since it's Halloween: What's Chatterjee's favorite Halloween candy? He tells us he's trying to abstain. "I've been working very hard to try and be healthier, so I'm going to try and stay away from all Halloween candy." Good luck to him.

 

Happy Wednesday! And Happy Halloween. Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news.

Please send tips and comments to Timothy Cama, tcama@thehill.com, and Miranda Green, mgreen@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Timothy_Cama, @mirandacgreen, @thehill.

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ZINKE DOJ REFERRAL CAME SHORTLY BEFORE WATCHDOG DUSTUP: The Interior Department's internal watchdog referred its investigation of Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeLawmakers say California will eventually get emergency funding for fire relief Mulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Overnight Energy: Trump to visit California wildfire victims | Head of Park Service climate program resigns | Dems rip Trump pick for energy panel MORE to the Department of Justice (DOJ) more than two weeks ago, just days before it was announced that Interior would be getting a Trump political appointee to replace its acting inspector general, two sources confirmed to The Hill.

Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonDetroit school board considers dropping Ben Carson’s name from local high school Number of homeless vets declined in last year Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper MORE, head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), told his staff on Oct. 12 that Suzanne Tufts would be leaving HUD to replace Interior's longtime acting inspector general (IG), Mary Kendall -- after the watchdog referred its probe to the Justice Department, according to two government sources with knowledge of the timeline.

One source described the timing as "incredibly circumspect" and raised questions about whether the plan to have Tufts fill a position traditionally occupied by a career staffer was in reaction to the investigation that was referred to the DOJ.

"That is exactly what we were concerned about two weeks ago," said Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of policy at the Project on Government Oversight.

"The IG office is not only in charge of investigating the secretary but keeping the entire agency kind of in check. The movement of a political appointee with no oversight experience into that role kinda makes it look like that move was to stymie that investigation or keep an eye on what was going on internally."

Tufts would have overseen all investigations at Interior, including at least four known open investigations into Zinke, and she would have been authorized to end investigations that were already underway. The watchdog's investigations, once referred to the DOJ, remain ongoing, meaning Tufts would have had some influence over the one sent to the Justice Department shortly before her move was announced.

The specific nature of the investigation into Zinke, referred to the DOJ and reported this week, has not been made public.

A week after Carson emailed staff about Tufts's planned departure, HUD announced that she was not joining Interior and had instead resigned. The housing agency chalked it up to a miscommunication.

Zinke said this week he was unaware of the DOJ investigation and has not been contacted for it. In a statement Tuesday, his lawyer said in a statement, "The Secretary has done nothing wrong."

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GROUPS THREATEN EPA SUIT OVER PAINT STRIPPER: A coalition of organizations is formally threatening to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not banning a toxic chemical used in paint strippers.

Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Earthjustice said Wednesday that the EPA is obligated to ban the use of methylene chloride, but it has not yet taken action to do so.

The EPA proposed a ban in January 2017, under former President Obama. And while former EPA head Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump to nominate Wheeler as EPA chief | House votes to remove protections for gray wolves | Lawmakers aim to pass disaster funds for California fires Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Time to stop letting fossil fuels run Washington MORE promised to move forward with the ban earlier this year, the agency has not released a final version of the regulation.

In the meantime, eight major home improvement and auto parts retailers have taken their own actions to stop selling products containing methylene chloride.

"Since EPA proposed its methylene chloride ban, four American families have lost loved ones. In light of the Trump EPA's continued failure to act, retailers are stepping up and taking action to protect their customers from this dangerous chemical," Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, said in a statement. "EPA must follow the home improvement industry's lead and ban these deadly paint removers from store shelves and workplaces nationwide."

EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said the agency would "continue to work towards a solution" on methylene chloride.

"EPA is currently evaluating the proposal and regulation of this substance and its uses to determine the appropriate regulation -- and its legal defensibility," she said in a statement.

Read more.

 

ETHANOL MANDATE NUMBERS MOVE ALONG: The EPA has sent the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) its final ethanol and biofuels mandate numbers for 2019, OMB said.

OMB review is the final step before the EPA can put out the finalized numbers to the public, a step it is required to do annually by Nov. 30. The office said it received the final figures Tuesday.

In its proposal released in June, the EPA said it would boost total biofuel volumes under the Renewable Fuel Standard by 3.1 percent. Ethanol interests criticized the proposal, saying volumes should go higher to account for mandate waivers that the EPA gave to refineries.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

The New Orleans City Council is expected to seek $5 million in fines against Entergy Corp. after a new report found it should have been able to stop paid actors from appearing at public hearings to support a proposed power plant, the Advocate reports.

New figures show that the United States produced more oil than Russia in August, Bloomberg reports.

Ryan Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy, is suing the federal government, accusing it of malicious prosecution stemming from the 2014 standoff at his father's Nevada ranch, the Associated Press reports.

 

FROM THE HILL'S OPINION SECTION: Jordan McGillis, policy analyst at the Institute for Energy Research, says a carbon tax would be extraordinarily costly.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Check out Wednesday's stories ...

- US drops two spots in World Bank's ranking of best places to do business

- New energy commission head pledges to avoid political influence

- GOP senators press Trump to halt nuclear energy talks with Saudi Arabia

- Groups threaten to sue EPA for not banning paint stripper chemical

- Interior watchdog referred Zinke probe to Justice days before move to replace agency IG