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Overnight Energy: Park Service plans to pay full-time staff through entrance fees | Oil companies join blitz for carbon tax | Interior chief takes heat for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change
NEW CONTROVERSY OVER PARK FEES: The National Park Service (NPS) plans to pay the salaries of full-time staff from the money it collects from park entrance fees, a move that is likely to enrage Democratic lawmakers who chastised the agency for dipping into the coffers to keep parks open during this year's partial government shutdown.
The new policy, authorized by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, lets NPS fund additional permanent positions at U.S. national parks and wildlife refuges through the revenue generated by entrance fees known as Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) or rec-fees, according to a memo sent by Deputy Director Dan Smith to regional directors that was obtained by The Hill.
Why it will stoke controversy? The move would circumvent Congress, which is traditionally tasked with providing funding for agency jobs.
The memo, dated May 21, says certain parks will be eligible to take advantage of the "flexibility" of hiring new full-time staff, or filling positions that have been left open due to a flat budget.
Rec-fee funds are generated through the entrance fees charged to visitors at U.S. national parks. While not all national parks charge entrance fees, those that do must manage their own funds and are required by Congress to use them mostly for maintenance and operational purposes. Allowed uses include repairs, habitat restoration, law enforcement activities and covering the costs related to collecting the entrance fees.
Under current guidelines, only jobs related to maintenance and fee collection are allowed to be paid for through rec-fees. The new guidance would broaden the use of those fees.
Smith argued in a separate internal memo he sent to Bernhardt, dated May 14, that NPS had the authority to change which positions are funded through entrance fees.
"The existing constraints are grounded in internal NPS management practices, not law," read the May 14 memo obtained by the Hill.
Interior and the National Park Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But is it legal? The new policy marks the second time the Interior Department under President Trump has moved to dip into park entrance fee savings. Bernhardt in January made the unprecedented move to use reserve funds to keep various parks open during the record 35-day shutdown.
At the time, critics warned that using those funds would deplete necessary savings that go toward hiring seasonal workers and getting parks prepared for fire season and when park visits hit their annual peak. Lawmakers also warned it was likely illegal. Interior ultimately repaid the money after the shutdown ended with appropriated funds.
National parks are facing a nearly $11 billion maintenance backlog for repairs to roads, visitor centers and other infrastructure. Lawmakers are in the midst of considering 2020 funding for Interior.
Critics say Bernhardt's decision to use rec-fees highlights an impatience with Congress, which over the years has stretched funds for national parks.
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ARE YOU TIRED? Democrats grilled President Trump's new Interior secretary on Wednesday over his recent comments that he hasn't "lost any sleep" over aspects of climate change.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but faced more questions about his response to climate change and a slew of ethical concerns than about his budget.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) centered his questions entirely on Bernhardt's "sleep" comment, flanked by a staffer holding photos of climate-related disasters in Puerto Rico, California and Texas, listing off the number of people who died in the disasters and how much damage they caused.
"Do you lose sleep over it?" Merkley asked after each example.
"I think it's an issue that needs to be addressed, but I don't lose sleep over it," Bernhardt responded.
"The policies you're promoting are doing enormous damage to our planet," Merkley said, calling the agency's policies "an immoral thing to do to the generations to come."
Merkley told the secretary he should "maybe lose some sleep and maybe decide to be part of the solution" on climate change.
Bernhardt later said: "We completely respect that the climate is changing, and we need to study and address it," and listed divisions of the department he said are making such efforts.
Pushback: Some of Bernhardt's comments echoed his past assertion that the legislative branch needs to take a greater role in directing the department to respond to climate change.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) agreed, saying it shouldn't fall to one secretary to make such determinations, and criticized her colleagues for "rhetorical" questioning of the secretary.
"I think the secretary, in response to rhetorical questions, is just kind of pointing out the obvious that the authority rests with Congress," she said.
OIL COMPANIES JOIN BLITZ FOR CARBON TAX: A number of oil-and-gas giants are taking part in an effort to encourage lawmakers to pass a national carbon tax, splitting with industry trade groups.
The campaign brought representatives of Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Mobil Corp. to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, part of a broader coalition involving 75 Fortune 500 companies.
Why it's getting attention: The effort was the largest gathering of businesses on Capitol Hill to advocate for climate legislation in over a decade, according to Ceres, a sustainable investment group behind the effort. The companies involved jointly represent more than $2.5 trillion in market valuations and over 750,000 U.S. employees.
The CEOs representing companies ranging from ski outfitters to dairy farmers argued that the effects of climate change were already being seen on their bottom lines. They argued a carbon price was the only market-driven route to solve U.S. emissions.
But the involvement of fossil fuel companies in pushing for a carbon tax garnered the most attention.
Why oil companies are getting on board: For those businesses, a carbon tax allowing the continued use of fossil fuels is preferable to progressive plans that seek to put together regulations in place or move away from using oil and gas altogether.
The involvement of fossil fuel companies in the new push is primary due to foreign based oil and gas companies who agree with the international consensus for climate action, one lobbying source told The Hill.
"Historically the refiners have been against things like a per barrel fee, a carbon tax, and a border adjustment tax on imported crude. Now you have a large push led by the foreign headquartered companies to be more forward thinking on climate matters," the source explained.
That could also pose a challenge for larger industry trade groups, many of which have long resisted calls for a tax on carbon emissions.
Industry divisions: One major fossil fuel group though absent from Wednesday's lobbying blitz is the American Petroleum Institute, with over 600 members. The group has struggled with how to address the issue of climate change for its members.
"Surely an association like API knows exactly how they would craft a carbon tax if they wanted to," the source said. "But I'm not sure how they meaningfully engage in that process with a divided membership."
ON TAP THURSDAY:
In the House, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on climate resiliency.
OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:
Neighbors suing over pig fumes, water quality spur 'right-to-farm' push, Stateline reports.
Washington is first state to allow composting of human bodies, we report.
California high-speed rail authority sues Trump administration, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Alaska agency to ship water to city with contaminated wells, the Associated Press reports.
Stories from Wednesday...
Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation'
Researchers find around 414 million pieces of garbage on remote islands
Democrats grill Trump Interior chief for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change
National Park Service plans to pay full-time staff through entrance fees
Markey releases infrastructure suggestions that align with Green New Deal goals
House panel votes to boost Interior, EPA budget by $1.7B
Botswana, home to nearly one-third of Africa's elephants, lifts hunting ban