Overnight Energy: Watchdog investigating EPA enforcement numbers | EPA's Wheeler faces Senate grilling | Interior's offshore drilling staff returning to work during shutdown

Overnight Energy: Watchdog investigating EPA enforcement numbers | EPA's Wheeler faces Senate grilling | Interior's offshore drilling staff returning to work during shutdown

GAO INVESTIGATING EPA'S LAW ENFORCEMENT NUMBERS: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has launched an investigation into declining enforcement actions against companies accused of violating EPA's pollution standards during the Trump administration.

A GAO spokesman said Tuesday that the probe began in October, with a focus on 2017 enforcement data that showed a significant drop in dollar amounts for settlements made with polluters.

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The final report is underway but not expected to be completed "until later in the year, likely fall," the spokesman said.

News of the probe comes as EPA's Inspector General (IG) continues its own investigation into the agency's enforcement figures and as the EPA is gearing up to release its 2018 enforcement numbers, which are expected to be even lower than the previous year.

The numbers: Data compiled by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and released Tuesday, found that the EPA in 2018 generated the fewest new criminal case referrals for prosecution to the Justice Department than any year since 1988.

Those numbers follow a November report by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which found that EPA's data showed steep declines in enforcement and compliance actions and outcomes. The 2018 declines were seen in civil settlement amounts, cases filed against polluters, compliance orders and criminal enforcement.

Last year's annual EPA enforcement report showed that polluters were fined a total of $1.6 billion in penalties in fiscal 2017 -- about one-fifth of the $5.7 billion EPA penalties collected the prior year.

The drop in the EPA's enforcement of regulations were even more stark when looking at the agency's actions on injunction relief -- the monetary commitments polluters pledge to spend in order to remediate their pollution and keep it from recurring.

Injunctive relief in 2017 stood at $20 billion, compared to $13.7 billion the previous year, but $15.9 billion of the recent total come from the landmark Volkswagen settlement. When the settlement is taken out of the calculation, injunctive relief payments in fiscal 2017 totaled $4 billion -- less than one-third of the previous year's amount and less than half of the total in 2015.

The probe: EPA's IG office in November began a comprehensive investigation, comparing the agency's enforcement rates between 2006 and 2018. The probe is comparing overall enforcement trends and intends to determine the factors for the falling numbers.

At EPA, political officials are said to be aware of the bad optics of lower enforcement numbers.

"The numbers are down," said an EPA source with knowledge of internal discussions. "Now there is a different emphasis -- we're encouraging compliance... so you can't just count the number of cases."

Read more on the probe here.

 

Happy Tuesday! The government shutdown clock is at 25 days. Here's the latest on the shutdown front.

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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INTERIOR TO BRING OFFSHORE DRILLING STAFF BACK DURING SHUTDOWN: The Trump administration is bringing dozens of federal employees back to work to carry out the administration's plan to expand offshore oil and natural gas drilling.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM) updated its plan for the ongoing partial federal government shutdown last week to state that 40 workers would be brought in for offshore drilling, in addition to the 84 others who have already been working during the shutdown.

The employees are working in four areas: geological testing for offshore oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean; the administration's proposal last year to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans; environment review for that proposal and preparations for two upcoming offshore drilling lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other BOEM responsibilities, like opening offshore areas for wind energy development, remain closed.

Each of the areas is being financed through "carryover funds," BOEM said.

Most federal employees who are being asked to work during the shutdown are there for a variety of very limited reasons, including "protection for life and property," since federal law severely restricts who can work.

But BOEM made clear that the workers newly exempted from the shutdown are there to carry out President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE's agenda.

"In order to comply with the Administration's America First energy strategy to develop a new OCS Oil and Gas leasing program, work must continue toward issuing the Proposed Program per the Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Act requirements," BOEM said of bringing back workers for the plan to expand drilling.

As for the Gulf of Mexico sales, "Failure to hold these sales would have a negative impact to the Treasury and negatively impact investment in the U.S. Offshore Gulf of Mexico," BOEM said.

BOEM and Interior did not respond to requests for comment.

Interior has been under fire by Democrats and environmentalists for bringing on workers in many areas related to fossil fuel extraction during the shutdown, while parks, wildlife refuges and other Interior responsibilities suffer.

Read more here.

 

WATCHDOG FILES ETHICS COMPLAINT AGAINST EPA CHIEF: A government watchdog group filed an ethics complaint against EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Tuesday over meetings held with past fossil fuel clients after he took over the agency.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), in a letter to the EPA's acting inspector general, asked the office to investigate whether Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist, violated his ethics pledge.

Specifically, the group asked the office to look into two 2018 meetings with former clients Darling Ingredients, Inc., Growth Energy, and the Archer Daniels Midland Company, during his two-year recusal period.

CREW also questioned whether Wheeler was right to participate in the rulemaking process for several EPA standards over which he had previously lobbied the agency. Those regulations include the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule, the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program.

"Mr. Wheeler's involvement in these matters also gives rise to the appearance of a lack of impartiality, which critically undermines the agency's integrity in carrying out these programs and operations," the CREW letter read. "As a result, unless he was authorized to participate, his involvement violated his ethical obligations under the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch ("Standards of Conduct")."

Before being sworn in as deputy EPA administrator in April, Wheeler signed an ethics pledge that prohibited him from participating "in any particular matter involving specific parties" that is directly and substantially related to his or her former employer or former clients for two years after appointment."

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Wheeler became acting administrator in July following former EPA head Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Trump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Overnight Energy: Former EPA chiefs say Trump has abandoned agency's mission | Trump in Iowa touts ethanol and knocks Biden | Greens sue Trump over drilling safety rollbacks | FDA downplays worries over 'forever chemicals' MORE's resignation. Trump formally nominated Wheeler to be EPA administrator last week.

EPA response: An EPA spokesperson denied the accusations.

"All of these baseless accusations are wrong. Acting Administrator Wheeler works closely with career EPA ethics officials and follows their guidance. This is nothing more than a last second political stunt by a group to try to attack President Trump's nominee hours before his confirmation hearing and should be recognized as such."

More on the ethics complaint here. And more on his confirmation hearing below.

 

ON TAP WEDNESDAY:

Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler will face a Senate grilling Wednesday on the aggressive deregulatory actions he's undertaken during the last six months as head of the agency.

He will testify at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on President Trump's nomination for him to be the official administrator of the EPA.

Wheeler is no stranger to Capitol Hill. He was confirmed by the Senate to be deputy administrator and has been in charge at EPA since former chief Scott Pruitt was forced out under pressure from ethics and spending allegations in July 2018.

His first appearance before Congress since August is likely to focus on his efforts at the EPA's helm to scale back regulations, including moving to undo the climate change rules for power plants, cars and oil drillers, and federal protections for small waterways like wetlands and streams.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries Hillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record MORE (D-Mass.), who sits on the Environment Committee, told The Hill he's expecting the hearing to feature "very tough questions on his relationship to the coal industry, pollution and harming the public health of Americans."

Check out our preview of what to expect at Wheeler's confirmation hearing.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

-Bark beetle outbreaks expand in Colorado, the Colorado State Forest Service reports.

-Yellowstone plans to ship 600-900 bison to slaughter this winter, The Billings Gazette reports.

-Energy Department says surging oil output will push US towards energy independence in 2020, CNBC reports.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Check out Tuesday's stories...

-Trump administration to bring back offshore drilling staff during shutdown

-GAO investigating EPA's low enforcement numbers

-Watchdog files ethics complaint against EPA head

-Some states' emissions would be higher under Trump climate rule, study finds

-EPA referrals for criminal prosecution lowest since 1988: report

-Outdoor clothing companies call for help at national parks during shutdown

-Antarctica losing six times more ice than four decades ago: study