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OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change
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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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'AN ABUSE OF AUTHORITY,' WHISTLEBLOWER SAYS: A Department of Justice (DOJ) decision to investigate a California effort to reduce vehicle emissions was highly criticized on Wednesday by House Democrats, who called it an effort to strong-arm the state and automakers.

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An antitrust investigation into the July deals struck between California and four different automakers was kicked off just a day after a tweet from President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE, a DOJ whistleblower testified during a fiery House Judiciary Committee hearing.

John W. Elias, a DOJ career employee who served as acting chief of staff for its Antitrust Division for the first half of the Trump administration, said the investigation served as “evidence that our nation's antitrust laws were being misused.”

Trump’s August tweets and the subsequent investigation came as the administration was developing now-finalized tailpipe emission and mileage standards for vehicles that significantly roll back those developed under the Obama administration.

“Car companies should know that when this administration’s alternative is no longer available, California will squeeze them to a point of business ruin,” Trump tweeted in August.

Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: Four major tech issues facing the Biden administration | Pressure grows to reinstate White House cyber czar | Facebook, Google to extend political ad bans House report says lawmakers could securely cast remote votes amid pandemic Why prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas MORE (D-Calif.) called it a "bad faith" investigation. She was one of numerous committee Democrats to cite the investigation as an example of the DOJ inappropriately wielding political influence over industries out of favor with the administration. 

Elias said there was little legal basis for the collusion investigation. Well-established antitrust precedent gives states wide latitude to regulate while “companies are free to collectively lobby the government for regulation.” The investigation fell apart in October when automakers informed DOJ they had individually signed deals with California. 

“Bottom line, it wasn't a legitimate antitrust investigation, was it?” asked Rep. Hank JohnsonHenry (Hank) C. JohnsonDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis MORE (D-Ga.).

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“The events here constituted an abuse of authority,” Elias responded.

California’s agreements with BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen commit the automakers to producing vehicles that could average 50 miles per gallon by 2026, while the Trump plan asks automakers to reach 40 mpg in the same time frame.

“The president is of course free to pursue an anti-environment agenda within the confines of the law. But there's a line between the department prioritizing executive policies and prosecuting companies and individuals solely to retaliate against the president's perceived political enemies,” said Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats MORE (D-R.I.).

Read more about Elias’s comments on the California probe here.

DONE PLAYING DEFENSE: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will no longer defend a policy that blocked scientists from serving on its committees if they receive agency funding for their research.

The controversial 2017 policy created under former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittMajor unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Democratic lawmaker calls for DOJ investigation of entire Trump administration MORE is credited with skewing the EPA’s advisory boards in favor of industry representatives while booting academics.

The EPA has lost three suits challenging the policy, with each decision released this spring.

The agency announced Wednesday it will not appeal the decisions, adding it "will continue to follow the relevant policies as they existed before issuance of the 2017 directive.”

Pruitt had argued it was a conflict of interest for EPA grant recipients — often some of the foremost experts in their field — to advise the agency. Several scientists were dismissed from boards while others did not receive a customary renewal for a second term.

While the decision strikes down the policy, it does not require the EPA to reconfigure the composition of any of its current advisory boards.

But Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the groups that sued over the policy, said it’s important to nix it from the books so Trump appointees or others don’t continue the practice going forward.

“The idea was if you received money from the agency you would do the agency’s bidding even though there’s no evidence to support that,” he said. “But people who worked for industry for years either directly or as contractors were fine. Only grants gave you bias, not income or contact with industry.”

However, the administration's statement Wednesday indicated that the EPA could pursue a similar policy by issuing a supplemental ethics regulation with the backing of the Office of Government Ethics, an independent agency without the executive branch.

“The court’s decision does not prevent future actions by EPA to regulate the composition of its advisory committees, including policies or regulations governing the participation of committee members who receive grants from EPA. Nor does it call into question EPA’s responsibility to ensure the independence of its committee members or its authority to reverse past policies when supported by a reasoned explanation,” the agency said. 

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Read more about the EPA’s decision here.

IN COURT:

Climate consequences: The state of Minnesota sued Exxon Mobil and other players in the oil and gas industry on Wednesday over climate change, claiming they knew about the impacts fossil fuels would have on the environment and misled the public.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonProgressives unveil Biden Cabinet wish list Officers involved with George Floyd killing will stand trial together in Minneapolis, judge decides Trump lashes out at state officials over virus restrictions at Minnesota rally MORE (D) filed the suit against Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and three Koch Industries entities. 

The defendants are accused of making inaccurate statements that were “part of a conspiracy to defraud consumers and the general public, including consumers and the public in Minnesota, about climate change and the role of fossil-fuel products in climate change.”

Ellison’s suit cited scientific evidence allegedly provided to the groups going back as far as the 1950s. 

“By 1965, Defendants and their predecessors-in-interest were aware that the scientific community had found that fossil-fuel products, if used profligately, would cause global warming by the end of the century, and that such global warming would have wide-ranging and costly consequences,” the suit said. 

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It also accused them of funding "fraudulent scientific research" in an attempt to create uncertainty. 

Paul Afonso, API's chief legal officer and senior vice president, told The Hill, however, that the industry has provided "affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint."

"Any suggestion to the contrary is false," Afonso said. 

Exxon spokesman Casey Norton told The Hill in a statement that the suit's claims are "baseless and without merit" and said the company "will continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy."

Read more about the lawsuit here

All settled: Bayer will pay more than $10 billion to resolve nearly 100,000 lawsuits filed by people who claimed to have gotten cancer from its weedkiller Roundup.

The complex settlement includes cases from more than 25 law firms representing clients ranging from homeowners to farmers who claimed to have suffered from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma stemming from Roundup use. The claimants will receive varying amounts.  

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Bayer has repeatedly maintained Roundup is safe. The settlement will resolve three-fourths of the outstanding Roundup cases and sets aside $1.25 billion to address future litigation. The company still faces 25,000 claims from those who were not part of the settlement.

“The Roundup settlement is the right action at the right time for Bayer to bring a long period of uncertainty to an end,” Werner Baumann, chief executive officer of Bayer, said in a statement.

“It is financially reasonable when viewed against the significant financial risks of continued, multi-year litigation and the related impacts to our reputation and to our business,” he added.

Read more about the settlement here.

'ON STANDBY': The National Guard has agreed to send unarmed members to assist U.S. Park Police in securing Washington, D.C.'s monuments.

The request comes as President Trump and other administration officials have been critical of protesters responding to the police killing of George Floyd and efforts to remove or deface various statues.

A statement from the Pentagon said the 400 National Guard members would play a civil disturbance and security role around the District.

“They remain on standby at the DC Armory at this time. They will support U.S. Park Police at key monuments to prevent any defacing or destruction,” Army spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said in a statement.

“The National Guard personnel will not be armed, and will serve as a uniformed deterrence and crowd management capacity to maintain closures and restricted areas.”

Guard members are expected to stay in the area through July 8, the Pentagon said. The National Guard assistance was first reported by CNN.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who oversees Park Police, told Fox News Tuesday evening he requested the assistance.

"This evening, I requested from the secretary of defense that the National Guard be available to us to begin to protect additional monuments,” Bernhardt said, adding that he also requested fencing be placed around Lafayette Park as well as at St. John's Church — the area where protesters were cleared with chemical irritants on June 1.

“They’re dedicated and they are dealing with a savagely significant situation,” he said of law enforcement. 

Trump on Tuesday vowed to crack down on anyone caught vandalizing a monument.

“I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act,” he tweeted. 

Read more about the National Guard presence here.

ON TAP TOMORROW:

The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on a number of bills, including the Murder Hornet Eradication Act 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Plastic Pollution Spawned by Pandemic Already Hitting the Oceans, Bloomberg Law reports

Germany bans single-use plastic straws, food containers, we report

Coronavirus infection increase poses new risk to recovering US gasoline, diesel demand, S&P Global reports

The UN Is Sounding the Alarm on 'Climate Refugees,' Earther reports

ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday...

Almost two-thirds think federal government not doing enough on climate change

Ford aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050

DC delegate pushes to remove Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park

Farm groups calls EPA a 'barrier' for emissions reduction in biofuels

Germany bans single-use plastic straws, food containers