Overnight Energy: EPA faces possible coronavirus outbreaks at multiple offices | Oil prices lowest since 2003 | Park service waives entrance fees during outbreak

Overnight Energy: EPA faces possible coronavirus outbreaks at multiple offices | Oil prices lowest since 2003 | Park service waives entrance fees during outbreak
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CORONAVIRUS AT EPA?: An employee who works at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional office in Helena, Mont., tested "presumed positive" for COVID-19, according to the agency and an internal email obtained by The Hill. 

The email, which was sent to employees on Sunday and signed by Region 8 administrator Greg Sopkin and assistant administrator Susan Parker Bodine, said that the person, who works on the second floor, had an initial test for the coronavirus come back positive. 

Employees who work on that floor were asked to self-quarantine for two weeks, the email said. 

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"After that we are providing the option of unscheduled leave and unscheduled telework until Friday, April 3, 2020," it added.

Effective Monday, all employees who work on the third floor were given the options of unscheduled leave and unscheduled telework, although the email said that "a few employees may be required to report to the office to maintain facilities and equipment."

EPA Region 8 spokesperson Laura Jenkins confirmed to The Hill in an email that the agency learned on Saturday that someone working at the federal building in Montana received the "presumed positive" diagnosis. 

"EPA is coordinating closely with federal, state and local officials in response to this case," Jenkins said. "The individual had minimal contact outside of their immediate workspace, and all areas the individual may have contacted are currently being disinfected in accordance with CDC guidelines.

"Out of an abundance of caution, EPA has asked all employees who work on the second floor of the building to self-quarantine for two weeks," she continued. "In addition, all EPA Helena office employees will have the option to voluntarily telework through April 3."

 

And, employees in a different EPA office also may have been exposed to the virus...

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The Helena office is apparently not the only EPA office that has received notifications regarding coronavirus; E&E News first reported on Wednesday that three employees in a Region 5 office had potential exposure to COVID-19. 

A national EPA spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that the region had three reported incidents of potential exposure, and said that the employees have not returned to the office since reporting their situations.

In recent days, the federal government has taken actions such as allowing many employees to work from home in an attempt to lessen the spread of the deadly virus. 

An EPA spokesperson told The Hill in an email earlier this week that it has "authorized voluntary unscheduled leave and telework for all EPA employees across the nation," and that it is encouraging those who can telework to not go into the office. 

 

But the union has expressed frustration...

Cathie McQuiston, deputy general counsel at the American Federation of Government Employees union, told The Hill on Wednesday that the timing of the agency's coronavirus safety measures differed across the country, which she called "frustrating."

"At the beginning especially, they were sort of beholden to what was happening locally, like if a local government or state was doing something, they would react to it, but they wouldn't institute those kinds of things nationwide," McQuiston said, referring specifically to telework policies. "Employees and workers feel they're being treated inequitably."

The EPA national spokesperson stressed in an email to The Hill that "the health and safety of our employees is our top priority."

"The Agency was also consistent and evidence based in its determination on granting optional telework [and] we followed the recommendations of state and local public health experts. If they made a determination that employers should offer telework, we immediately adopted that recommendation," the spokesperson said. "In this case, the union is not second guessing our decisions; they are second guessing public health officials across the country."

Read more about the coronavirus situation at EPA here

 

HAPPY WEDNESDAY! 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.

 

HOW LOW CAN YOU GO? U.S. oil prices reached their lowest point since 2003 on Wednesday as the coronavirus has reduced demand in countries around the world.

Prices fell for a third session, with U.S. crude Clc1 reaching $25.06 per barrel, the lowest price since late April 2003. As of 11:35 GMT, U.S. crude Clc1 hit $1.51 cents or 5.6 percent at $25.44 per barrel, Reuters reported.

The last time prices were that low, the U.S. had recently invaded Iraq, and China was rising in the global economy, sparking an increase in global oil consumption to record levels, Reuters noted.   

Meanwhile, Brent crude LCOc1 traded down 95 cents at $27.78 a barrel after reaching $27.56, the lowest point since early 2016.

"The oil demand collapse from the spreading coronavirus looks increasingly sharp," Goldman Sachs said in a note obtained by Reuters. 

Goldman Sachs projected in the note that Brent crude would decrease to as much as $20 in the second quarter, prices not seen since early 2002. The bank predicted that the global demand would decrease 8 million barrels per day by late March and 1.1 million per day annually, which would be a new record, according to the wire service.

Iraq's oil minister is requesting an emergency meeting between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC oil producers to take action to stabilize the market. Russia and Saudi Arabia's battle for market share has also put additional pressure on the market.

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Read more about the price drop here. 

 

TAKING (LEGAL) ACTION: Environmental group Earthjustice sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Wednesday following an investigation that found the agency was fast-tracking approval for various chemicals.

The investigation, done alongside the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) "found that EPA is approving hundreds of new chemicals each year without giving the public access to important information or opportunities to provide input."

The lawsuit based on the report hinges on the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, which require the EPA to announce new applications for chemicals ranging from pesticides to new forms of non-stick chemicals.

But the groups found that in one out of every six applications, the EPA did not publish the notice until after the chemical was already approved, preventing the public from weighing in with concerns.

"Unleashing chemicals into the market without proper vetting is like opening Pandora's box," the groups said in a release. 

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"EPA must stop hiding key information about the chemicals it is reviewing and put public health above the desires of the chemical industry."  

EPA said it would not comment on pending litigation.

The suit, filed on behalf of groups including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resource Defense Council, follows threats of litigation last year.

The EPA then made some changes to its policy, but Earthjustice argues those moves are still insufficient. 

Read more about the lawsuit here.

 

PARK IT: The National Park Service (NPS) will no longer collect entrance fees at its parks that remain open during the coronavirus outbreak, the agency announced Wednesday.

"I've directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open. This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks," Secretary David Bernhardt of the Interior Department, which oversees NPS, said in a statement.

"Our vast public lands that are overseen by the department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing," he added.

That could mean significant savings for some nature lovers, as fees can run as high as $35 per vehicle at some national parks. The fees are suspended until further notice.

However, many of the park service's properties are already closed due to the virus. Some parks have closed completely, while others have shut down visitor's centers or other spots where people might gather in close proximity.

NPS's decision follows that of some states and towns that have already vowed to waive fees or keep parks partially open during the outbreak.

The story is here. 

 

MAKING HIS OPINION NOT SECRET: Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Trump administration rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards MORE (D-Del.) on Wednesday slammed the Environmental Protection Agency's so-called "secret science" rule, which could expand the reach of a rule that limits consideration of studies that don't make their underlying data public.

"Rather than encouraging reliance on the 'best available' data and science, this proposal would result in the suppression of scientific research and the censorship of scientists and experts," Carper said in a statement. 

"If there was ever a time for EPA to release an anti-science proposal, it is certainly not now. In fact, it's hard to imagine a time when our nation needed to embrace science more than we do at this very moment. At a time when the American people are looking to the federal government to be guided by science and lead, and this proposal is far from what our country needs," he added, apparently referring to the coronavirus outbreak.

A draft of the newest version of the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule, sometimes referred to as the "secret science" rule, was officially published this week. Changes to it were first announced earlier this month. 

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Oil and gas companies want to drill within a half-mile of Utah's best-known national parks, The Washington Post reports

A red state template for 100 percent renewables? Utah bill unites Rocky Mountain Power, cities and activists, Utility Dive reports

California is a climate leader. But here's why it needs to move even faster, The Los Angeles Times reports

Oil and gas lease bidding in Gulf of Mexico drops anew, The Associated Press reports

 

ICYMI...

Stories from Wednesday:

Four US banks are the world's largest fossil fuel financers: analysis

NASA data reveals Greenland lost 600B tons of ice last summer

Democrats call for pollution reduction requirements in any aid for airlines, cruises

EPA sued for allegedly violating laws for approving new chemicals

National Park Service waives entrance fees during coronavirus outbreak

EPA faces possible coronavirus outbreaks at multiple office

Oil prices lowest since 2003