Overnight Energy & Environment

Overnight Energy: Murkowski, Manchin unveil major energy bill | Lawmakers grill EPA chief over push to slash agency’s budget | GOP lawmaker accuses Trump officials of ‘playing politics’ over Yucca Mountain

Greg Nash

GETTING ENERGIZED: Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Thursday introduced a long-awaited energy package that’s shaping up to be the best chance this year for passing legislation to expand the use of cleaner forms of energy.

The American Energy Innovation Act would touch nearly every aspect of the energy industry, incorporating more than 50 bills advanced by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took steps Thursday to bring the more than 550-page bill to the floor as early as next week.

“This bill is our best chance to modernize our nation’s energy policies in more than 12 years,” Murkowski said in a statement. “By working together to pass it into law, we can promote a range of emerging technologies that will help keep energy affordable even as it becomes cleaner and cleaner.”

The package would promote research in up-and-coming renewables like geothermal and wave technology while shoring up supplies of minerals needed for the batteries to support long-term use of wind and solar.

It also includes efforts to bolster the capture of carbon pollution, including from the coal and natural gas sector, as well as research to expand nuclear energy.

Climate questions: However, some portions of the bill, like those dealing with mining, as well as fossil fuels, may prove too controversial for some Democrats. And it’s already being criticized by environmental groups for doing too little to address climate change. 

The package does not set any specific carbon reduction targets, though committee staff said it is expected to reduce emissions.

The legislation’s research and development portions, as well as its energy efficiency measures, have some overlap with bills still being drafted in the House that would commit the U.S. to carbon neutrality by 2050.

A committee aide told reporters the bill is an energy bill, with provisions that are very important for dealing with climate change.

The aide acknowledged the bill was not sufficient to address climate change, but called it a downpayment on climate legislation that is mainly focused on energy innovation.

The legislation contains elements of bills sponsored or co-sponsored by 60 senators from across the political spectrum, as well as some House legislation that has already been sent to the Senate.

Senate aides expressed optimism that the House would be willing to work together on the legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office declined to comment on the legislation.

The bill includes a number of energy efficiency measures, extending a program to weatherize homes, offering grants to retrofit buildings, and requiring the government to extend its own energy reduction targets while adding new reductions for water use.

But the bulk of the bill centers on boosting new and developing technologies, including ways to make cars and trucks more fuel efficient, as well as methods to make manufacturing processes greener.

It also includes a number of cybersecurity and grid modernization efforts to prevent electric grids from being hacked by adversaries.

The obstacles: But some portions of the bill may make it tough to get Democratic support, particularly those dealing with mining for minerals needed to make batteries.

“We still give mining companies – many foreign owned —  a sweetheart deal, but leave taxpayers on the hook for cleaning up the toxic messes at thousands of abandoned mines across the West,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said in a statement to The Hill.

“I have serious concerns with the energy bill provision that gives the mining industry a new break on their permitting process for massive mining projects, which could have grave consequences for public health and the environment.”

That may raise red flags after the Trump administration has pushed to designate uranium as a critical mineral, opening the possibility of mining the substance near the Grand Canyon, despite objections from Democrats that the mineral is already widely supplied by U.S. allies. 

The legislation spurred mostly negative reactions from major environmental groups. 

“At a time when we need to rapidly transition away from dirty fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy, this bill points us in the wrong direction,” Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce said in a statement. 

Read more about the legislation here. 


HAPPY THURSDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill’s roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin. 


TALKING MONEY: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler appeared before lawmakers Thursday to defend a budget that would bring the agency to its lowest funding level in years.

As with previous Trump administration budgets, lawmakers are expected to ignore the proposed 26 percent cut to the agency, one of the steepest in the budget. 

“We are focused on the core mission of our agency so we can continue to protect the land, the air, the water, and we believe we can do that with the budget we requested,” Wheeler told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But Democrats made clear they planned to reject those cuts, while hitting the agency for what they described as a history of shortchanging important public health programs and sidelining scientists who contradict their policy goals.

“Some of the most significant proposed rollbacks on environmental protections are at odds with the scientific record,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), highlighting critiques of EPA proposals from its independent Science Advisory Board.

“It is critical that our public health protections are grounded in robust science, and sadly I believe the administration continues to dismiss science and expertise whenever they conflict with their regulatory agenda.”

The White House budget would cut more than 50 EPA programs aimed at helping fight pollution, radon and lead as well as those that give clean water grants to small and disadvantaged communities.

It would also cut research and development funding at the agency nearly in half, lowering funding from $500 million to $281 million.

The budget would cut the Superfund program, tasked with cleaning up hazardous waste sites, by 10 percent, despite data showing the agency has the largest backlog of toxic waste cleanups in 15 years.

“Why are you proposing a cut of more than $112 million when you seem to imply you could use more money?” asked Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the chairman of the committee.

Wheeler said the agency would be able to recoup some costs from corporations but defended the agency’s record, saying it had been closing Superfund sites at a rapid pace.

Questions on fuel economy: Wheeler also advocated for the agency’s coming proposal on fuel efficiency, which has already ignited a legal battle with California, which is trying to pursue tougher standards. 

“It’s still better to have one national standard,” he said. “I hope that when California sees our final regulation when it comes out they will agree that it’s the best approach for the entire country.”

The EPA proposal would roll back the fuel economy standards from the Obama-administration, while California has pushed to maintain nearly the same goals, pushing for automakers to reach an average fuel economy of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2026.

Read more about the hearing here.


Wheeler was not the only administration official to appear on Capitol Hill…


BROUILLETTE TAKES BIPARTISAN HEAT: Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse (Wash.) accused the Trump administration of “playing politics” on Thursday with its reversal on funding for a nuclear waste repository in Nevada. 

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to see this administration playing politics with something as important as completing the permanent solution to our nation’s high-level nuclear waste,” Newhouse said during a hearing on the administration’s proposed Department of Energy (DOE) budget. 

“This budget is…a total waste of resources and a distraction from solving this very important issue,” he added. 

President Trump announced this month that he no longer supports funding the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, reversing his position on a controversial matter in a key state in November’s elections. The change was reflected in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2021. 

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said during the hearing that the administration would not proceed with either licensing for Yucca Mountain or an interim storage facility. 

“My understanding [is] under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act we are prohibited from starting construction on an interim facility, a federal facility,” Brouillette said. 

Democrats also criticized the administration over cuts included in the budget proposal. 

“The Trump Administration again proposes to cut DOE’s budget — by 8 percent overall, and by an astounding 35 percent in non-defense programs. This will limit America’s future by drastically reducing or eliminating programs critical for meeting our future energy needs and assuring our security,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee’s subpanel on Energy and Water Development, in her opening statement.  

“Your budget proposes deep and arbitrary cuts that threaten progress one one of our most pressing challenges and that is climate change. We can be a leader in exporting clean energy technologies, but not under your budget request,” Kaptur added later in the hearing. 

In response, Brouillette said, “Renewable technologies are becoming somewhat mature in the marketplace, so for us to focus again on these technologies that are now commercially widely  available seems to us to be inappropriate.”

Read more about the hearing here.


And at another hearing, NOAA asked Congress for more money to combat sexual harassment at the agency. The Hill’s Emily DiSalvo has the story…

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is pressing Congress for more money to combat sexual harassment and assault at the agency, saying additional funding would allow it to hire more workplace violence specialists

Neil Jacobs, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction at NOAA, told a House subcommittee Thursday that the agency is working “expeditiously” to hire more workplace violence specialists and improve the culture.

NOAA is also requesting $2.7 million in its fiscal year 2021 budget to help combat the pattern of sexual harassment and assault, a $1.7 million increase from the previous year and the largest percentage increase for any new program in the agency, according to Jacobs.

NOAA has only one full-time employee working in the workplace violence prevention program despite a pattern of sexual harassment and assault at the agency.

“We have had hiring challenges in the weather services and elsewhere,” Jacobs said. “It’s a slow process. I called enterprise services myself to try and expedite it. I wasn’t aware of how bad the problems were until recently.”

NOAA requested $2.7 million in the 2020 fiscal year’s budget to help combat the pattern of sexual harassment and assault, a $1.7 million increase from the previous year and the largest percentage increase for any new program in the agency, according to Jacobs.

In 2016, Congress passed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Act after several employees came forward about sexual harassment when traveling remote locations necessary for research at NOAA. The act required procedures for victims to report harassment as well as a requirement that NOAA publish an annual report documenting all of the reported incidents.

NOAA released its first report in 2017 which listed four instances of sexual assault and 21 instances of harassment. These numbers increased to 22 assaults and 52 instances of harassment in 2018.

While the number of incidents of sexual assault and harassment decreased in 2019 to two and 34 respectively, the agency acknowledged that there is still work to be done.


ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE BILL: Democratic lawmakers on Thursday rolled out an environmental justice bill that aims to address inequities faced by marginalized communities. 

“For far too long, communities of color, low-income communities and tribal and indigenous communities have not been a meaningful voice in the decisionmaking process impacting their well-being. Not with this bill,” Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) said during a press conference. 

Advocates have long called for action to tackle unequal effects of environmental issues on these communities. There have been studies, for example, that show that low-income and nonwhite communities face greater impacts from pollution. 

The new bill would require that cumulative impacts be considered in Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act permitting decisions.

It would also use revenue from new fees on fossil fuel industries to support communities as they transition away from greenhouse gas-dependent economies and authorize $75 million to support projects to address environmental and public health issues. 

Lawmakers were joined on Thursday by environmental justice advocates, who said they played a role in helping to shape the legislation. 

“I have to witness the health of my kids declining from the cumulative effects of pollution,” said Kim Gaddy, an environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action of New Jersey. “We live in communities that are under attack.” 

Read more about the bill here.


MAILBAG: A group of 14 Democratic and independent senators wrote to the Trump administration opposing proposed changes to one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. 

The proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would eliminate the requirement that the government consider climate change when evaluating projects and in some cases even allowing companies to assess the impacts of their own projects. 

“The proposal directs federal agencies to disregard indirect effects and cumulative impacts in the NEPA process, thereby eliminating the established legal requirement to consider climate change in the federal decision-making process,” the senators wrote. “This is a hallmark of the Trump Administration’s entrenched climate denial – and while that itself may come as no surprise – this rollback would also unlawfully overturn decades of well-established precedent, through Democratic and Republican Administrations alike.”

Supporters of the proposed changes are billing them as a modernization of the law, saying that many projects have been slowed down unnecessarily by environmental assessments. 



Alaska feels the brunt as investors promise retreat on fossil fuels, NPR reports

Arctic drilling operators can’t accurately pinpoint polar bear dens — which means they can’t avoid destroying them, The Washington Post reports

Tesla battery power plant approved in California, KSBW reports


ICYMI: Stories from Thursday…

House Democrats unveil environmental justice bill

Lawmakers grill EPA chief over push to slash agency’s budget

Murkowski, Manchin introduce major energy legislation

EPA official’s private response to Trump’s water pressure claims: ‘Sigh’

GOP lawmaker accuses administration of ‘playing politics’ with Yucca Mountain reversal

Climate activists celebrate court blocking plans to build third runway at Heathrow

Tags Andrew Wheeler Dan Newhouse Donald McEachin Donald Trump Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Marcy Kaptur Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Paul Tonko Tom Udall
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