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OVERNIGHT ENERGY: New documents show EPA rolled back mileage standards despite staff, WH concerns | Land management bureau grants 75 royalty rate cuts for oil and gas | EPA employees allege leadership interference with science in watchdog survey

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: New documents show EPA rolled back mileage standards despite staff, WH concerns | Land management bureau grants 75 royalty rate cuts for oil and gas | EPA employees allege leadership interference with science in watchdog survey
© Greg Nash
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.

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KEEP ON TRUCKIN': The Trump administration pushed ahead with a rule that guts Obama-era clean car standards over objections from career staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and concerns within the White House, new documents show.

The regulations finalized in March roll back perhaps the most significant climate measure implemented during the Obama administration by lowering both fuel efficiency and emissions thresholds in a rule that's expected to cost consumers some $13 billion.

Internal documents obtained by Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities | Montana asks court to throw out major public lands decisions after ousting BLM director | It's unknown if fee reductions given to oil producers prevented shutdowns Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities Energy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress MORE (D-Del.) detail how EPA staff objected to claims that the new rule would reduce climate change impacts, while other files showed the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said the rule lacked legal justification.

Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told the EPA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Tuesday that the revelations further underscore the need for an investigation.

“My previous request to you observed that an effort to conceal further inter-agency disagreement could result in the concealment of embarrassing and legally risky information related to flaws in the final rule,” Carper wrote in a letter. “I have learned that this is exactly what has occurred.”

The OIG told The Hill it is reviewing Carper's request.

The new standards require automakers to produce a fleet averaging 40 mpg by 2026, rather than the previous requirement of 55 mpg by 2025. The standards are a collaboration between EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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The rule states “this action will result in reductions in climate change-related impacts and most air pollutants compared to the absence of regulation.”

But EPA staff disagreed with that assessment.

“This is not correct,” they wrote when weighing in on the rule NHTSA compiled after the interagency collaboration. “‘The absence of regulation ... would be the existing EPA standards which are more stringent than those finalized in this action.”

EPA nonetheless decided to finalize the rule without taking many of the suggestions from career staff, the latest in a line of rollbacks pitting political appointees against staff. Agency staff has similarly raised concerns over regulations dealing with asbestos and smog.

Other rulemaking documents show the EPA was warned of possible legal action before finalizing the rule.

“The legal justification is lacking,” OMB wrote when sending the rule back to EPA after its review, adding that it “reads very cursory.”

“It does not do enough to explain why 1.5 is the right stringency level as a matter of fact or why it is proper as a matter of law,” OMB wrote, referring to the rule asking for 1.5 percent year-over-year improvements in fuel efficiency from automakers, versus the 5 percent required under the Obama administration.

The OMB correspondence was first reported by E&E News.

EPA’s review also shows many of its comments went unheeded as career staff weighed in on the rule NHTSA compiled after the agencies’ collaboration.

An EPA staffer later complained in an email that NHTSA repeatedly ignored EPA staff comments.

“EPA's goal regarding these detailed comments ... is to improve the legal defensibility of the final rule,” the staffer wrote, adding that the rule has “numerous factual inaccuracies which litigants can easily disprove.”

When reached for comment, NHTSA said the rule “marked the culmination of over a year of close collaboration between EPA and NHTSA, just as the agencies collaborated in prior joint rulemakings in this and the previous administration. The rule considered and responded to hundreds of thousands of public comments, and incorporated extensive scientific and economic analyses from experts at both agencies.”

EPA staffers, however, have previously complained they were sidelined by NHTSA during the rulemaking process.

 

“This rule does not help American consumers — it will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions and more harmful air pollution,” Carper said in a statement.

Read more about the objections here.

 

WHAT A RELIEF: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved every request it received from companies to reduce the rates they need to pay the government to lease public lands in Utah for oil and gas drilling, according to available data.

The bureau’s reporting system shows 75 filed requests for rate cuts in recent weeks and also and 75 approvals.  

The system, however, only showed data for leases located in Utah, so it is not clear if there is a similar pattern for leases located in other states.

A BLM spokesperson told The Hill in a statement that BLM's state offices were handling the reductions and only approving them "when it is in the best interest of conservation to do so or when it would encourage the greatest ultimate recovery of our natural resources."

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"Applications for relief are reviewed by career experts at the Bureau following longstanding procedures and its laws and regulations," the spokesperson said. "Any relief granted is temporary, for up to 60 days. Numerous organizations, stakeholders and elected officials asked for blanket relief, and we have maintained our position of following current practices and providing guidance in how producers would apply within existing regulations."

Critics told The Hill that the apparent 100 percent approval rate indicated a lack of rigor in evaluating the royalty cut requests, and expressed concern that taxpayers would ultimately be the ones paying the price.

“I think it shows that there is no criteria,” said Aaron Weiss, the deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. “They’re just handing out royalty reductions to anyone who asks.”

“You’re basically giving away an asset that’s owned publicly ... at the lowest possible price and undercutting a source of revenue,” said David Jenkins, the president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. “From a fiscal responsibility standpoint it makes no sense. From a market standpoint it makes no sense.”

On Wednesday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) requested a Government Accountability Office probe of the royalty cuts. 

"I am concerned that in its haste to approve huge numbers of royalty cuts, BLM may not be fully following the requirements in the regulations," he wrote in his request letter. 

Read more about the royalty cuts here

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RUNNING INTERFERENCE? More than 250 employees have had concerns that a manager or senior leader at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) possibly interfered with science, according to an internal watchdog report. 

The report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that almost 400 respondents in a 2018 survey who were "involved in science" said they had experienced but did not report potential violations of the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. 

Of those, 251 reported that their concern involved “interference with science by a manager or senior Agency leader,” and 175 reported that their concern involved “suppression or delay of release of scientific report or information.”

It stated that common reasons for not reporting possible violations of the scientific integrity policy included fear of retaliation, belief that reporting wouldn’t make a difference and perceived suppression or interference by leadership or management. 

The employee survey also found that 51 percent of respondents with a basis to make judgements said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that “senior leadership makes the basis for any policy decision accessible and transparent.”

The report said that common themes from comments provided by employees included “dissatisfaction with support for or understanding of” scientific integrity by senior leadership, belief that political appointees “do not value or adequately consider science in policy, rulemaking, or enforcement decisions” and the belief that leadership is “greatly influenced by political, industry, state, or regulated groups.”

Commenters also expressed concern or disagreement with how the agency handles climate science information and said they experienced or observed “suppression, changes, manipulation, or exclusion of scientific information, results, or research,” according to the report.

Read more about the report here. 

 

WHEEL’S UP: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds | Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires | Climate change, national security among topics for final Trump-Biden debate MORE defended the agency’s rollback of Obama-era regulations from criticism from Democratic senators at a Wednesday hearing. 

Democrats seized on a number of recent regulations that would roll back air protections, including seven that have been proposed or finalized during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee. 

“Will you stop writing rules that make things actually worse and not better?” Carper asked during his committee's hearing with Wheeler.

“All of our rules make things better,” Wheeler retorted.

A recent Harvard study linking air pollution and coronavirus deaths was a central feature of the hearing, with several lawmakers focusing on the risks to people of color, as many polluting industries are located in majority-minority areas.

“Shame on you, Mr. Administrator. You should be apologizing to people of color in our country for what you are doing. Shame on you,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOcasio-Cortez says having Green New Deal would have helped handle COVID-19 pandemic OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes MORE (D-Mass.) said in a lengthy admonishment of Wheeler. 

Wheeler said the numerous regulations finalized by the agency have saved consumers an estimated $7 billion in regulatory costs. 

“I want to be clear that we are not achieving this at the expense of environmental laws enacted by Congress," he said. "In fact some of this important work is modernizing decades-old regulations and bringing them up to date."

Read more about the hearing here.

 

Also on Capitol Hill…

Mark Menezes, President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE’s pick to fill the No. 2 spot at the Energy Department, was questioned by senators on a variety of issues. 

One that came up was the administration’s position on the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site. 

"Is the administration pursuing Yucca Mountain as a permanent, high-level nuclear waste disposal site?" asked Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) about the site in her home state. 

“The administration will not be pursuing Yucca Mountain as a solution for nuclear waste,” Menezes said. 

The Nevada senator followed up and asked whether the administration would use the location as an interim storage site. 

Menezes replied: “In the president’s budget request we have requested $27.5 million to ensure that we have an interim storage program in place ... to look at finding a solution, and implementing one that is flexible for both interim and permanent storage down the road,”

Trump in February said he would not support storing waste at Yucca Mountain, a reversal of his prior position. 

 

MAILBAG: 

About that assistance... Twenty-one environmental and advocacy groups sent a letter to the Biden campaign Wednesday asking the former vice president to place restrictions on any oil or gas company that received coronavirus stimulus funds.

The letter urges the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to pledge to prohibit companies that abuse those funds or misstate facts in loan applications from receiving any future leases on public lands and waters or any other future form of government assistance.

“As we scramble to avoid a climate catastrophe, a Biden administration will have to scrutinize where every bailout dollar went and address the previous president’s handouts to corporate polluters,” the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the signatories of the letter, said in a statement.

A new CCC, if you will… Seventy-nine House Democrats are asking leadership for a “Restoration and Resilience Jobs” package in the next coronavirus stimulus bill, outlining a $125 billion plan.

“Time is of the essence as unemployment surges, especially among youth,” lawmakers wrote in the letter spearheaded by Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellCedric Richmond's next move: 'Sky's the limit' if Biden wins Pelosi, Mnuchin continue COVID-19 talks amid dwindling odds for deal Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair MORE (D-Mich.).

“This is exactly why President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invested heavily in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed more than three million young Americans to reforest and restore natural resources and to build recreational infrastructure across our country. A robust 'Restoration and Resilience Jobs' title could serve as the work-plan for a 21st Century” approach, they said.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

  • Water, power crews stay in trailers, live at work during virus, Bloomberg Law reports
  • JPMorgan Chase shareholders defeat call for greater climate-change disclosure at world’s largest oil funder, MarketWatch reports
  • Tree deaths in urban settings are linked to leaks from natural gas pipelines below streets, InsideClimate News reports

 

ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday…