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Overnight Energy: EPA chief outlines vision for agency under 'Trump's second term' | Agency sued over decision not to regulate chemical linked to fetal brain damage

Overnight Energy: EPA chief outlines vision for agency under 'Trump's second term' | Agency sued over decision not to regulate chemical linked to fetal brain damage
© Stefani Reynolds

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.

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A PREVIEW OF THE SEQUEL?: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT 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 EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds EPA allows use of radioactive material in some road construction MORE on Thursday laid out what a second term under President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE would look like for the agency, using a speech celebrating the agency's 50th anniversary to recount regulations largely viewed as rollbacks by critics.

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“While the focus of the next 50 years should not be like the last 50, it should be informed by it,” Wheeler said in a speech from the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., an homage to the president who founded the EPA in 1970.

Wheeler promised to continue "President Trump’s second term" with a rule that would limit consideration of some scientific research as well as another that would change the way the agency evaluates how its policies affect climate change.

He also said the EPA needs to center its efforts on achieving environmental justice for communities overburdened by pollution — a less common talking point for an agency often focused on removing regulatory barriers.

“I believe that by focusing EPA toward communities in the coming years, our agency can change the future for people living in this country who have been left behind simply for living in polluted places,” he said.

Wheeler's speech stands in contrast to the ongoing criticism from former EPA employees, environmental groups and advocates who claim that the EPA is not fulfilling its duties. 

“Based on their own record and the Trump EPA’s lack of any positive agenda to reduce air and water pollution, the Trump EPA is easily the worst in the 50 year history of EPA,” said John Walke, a senior advisor to NRDC Action Fund, the political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

“They have rolled back or tried to roll back much of the Obama EPA record but have run into a buzzsaw in the courts.”

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Let’s recap:

Since 2017, the Trump administration has replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan regulations with a rule that reduced the regulatory burdens on coal-fired power plants. It significantly cut the mileage and emissions standards required of U.S. automakers. And it has eliminated methane requirements for oil and gas producers — a move largely opposed by the industry.

Beyond those greenhouse gas rollbacks, it has declined to enact more stringent standards for smog and soot — “making the Trump administration the first in EPA history to never strengthen any health standards for air pollution,” Walke said — and limited the reach of the federal government to protect water.

It has also worked to implement a controversial rule that critics say could limit consideration of landmark public health studies by prioritizing research only if it makes its underlying data public.

Wheeler said finishing that rule would be a priority in a potential second Trump term.

“The American public has a right to know the scientific justification behind a regulation. This will bring much needed sunlight into our regulatory process,” he said.

The regulation Wheeler hopes to finalize has been near-universally opposed by members of the scientific community, who say peer reviews to evaluate a study’s methods and conclusions are much more valuable than raw data that could contain personal and health information or confidential business data.  

“It is by its very terms designed to handcuff EPA to prohibit consideration of the best quality science that would result in stronger protections for Americans and our environment,” Walke said.

“I can't think of agency rulemaking in EPA’s 50 years of rulemaking history that was so obviously designed to prohibit future safeguards through censorship of science.”

Wheeler also wants to focus on enacting new cost-benefit analysis standards into a variety of different major environmental regulations. The standards could block future administrations from securing updates to a variety of different rules by making it harder to count the societal benefits of fighting climate change.

Wheeler wants to insert both the science rule and the cost-benefit rules statute by statute, which would force a future administration to abide by them for a host of future air and water regulations.

Read more about Wheeler’s speech here.

 

TOXIC CHEMICAL LAWSUIT: An advocacy group on Thursday sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its decision not to regulate a chemical that has been linked to fetal and infant brain damage. 

The agency announced in June that it would not regulate the chemical perchlorate even though it estimated that up to 620,000 people could be drinking water with a concerning amount of the chemical. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued Thursday in an attempt to get the agency to withdraw its decision not to regulate the chemical, which is used in rocket fuel. 

“The agency should establish an enforceable drinking water standard for perchlorate that protects vulnerable people, especially our children,” said Erik Olson, the NRDC’s senior strategic director for its health and food, healthy people and thriving communities program.

“Since the current EPA management will not do so voluntarily, we are seeking relief from the courts to force the agency to comply with the law and to follow the scientific evidence,” Olson added in a blog post.

The EPA said in a July statement that perchlorate “does not meet the criteria for regulation as a drinking water contaminant” under the Safe Drinking Water Act and said in its decision that the number of people impacted by perchlorate was too small to present a “meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler also cited regulations that are present in some states and localities that he said are "effectively and efficiently managing levels of perchlorate."

Read more about the lawsuit here

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MAILBAG:

Office drama: Two Democratic lawmakers are raising concerns about a recent move by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a Colorado office that deals with issues relating to Western lands such as waste cleanup from mining.

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump extends Florida offshore drilling pause, expands it to Georgia, South Carolina | Democrats probe Park Service involvement in GOP convention | Sanders attacks 'corporate welfare' to coal industry included in relief package Democrats probe Park Service involvement in GOP convention Overnight Energy: EPA chief outlines vision for agency under 'Trump's second term' | Agency sued over decision not to regulate chemical linked to fetal brain damage MORE (Minn.) and Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Judge tosses land management plans after ousting Pendley from role | Trump says he could out-raise Biden with calls to Wall Street, oil execs | Supreme Court to review Trump border wall funding, asylum policies OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Pendley says court decision ousting him from BLM has had 'no impact' | Court strikes down Obama-era rule targeting methane leaks from public lands drilling | Feds sued over no longer allowing polluters to pay for environmental projects  Pendley says court decision ousting him from BLM has had 'no impact' MORE (N.M.) said in a letter to the agency Wednesday that the establishment of the new office would need to first be reviewed by the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

“The Further Consolidated Appropriations Act ... requires the advance approval by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees prior to the implementation of any Agency reorganizations or reprogrammings of funds,” the lawmakers wrote.

“This reorganization is a significant departure from how hard rock mining remediation is currently handled at the Agency and therefore must first be evaluated by the Appropriations Committees,” they added.

McCollum is chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with the Department of the Interior and the environment, and Udall is the ranking member on the comparable Senate subcommittee.

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The EPA on Wednesday announced it was creating an Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains, based in Lakewood, Colo., to deal with the environmental impacts of hard rock mining.

EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento said the office would help the agency tackle issues related to cleaning up hazardous waste at large mining sites.

“Superfund was designed to address Eastern sites that are smaller and more compact. What this office will do is it will bring a focus on how to address those larger sites,” he said.

He also said the agency was “moving decisionmaking out of D.C. into the West for issues that are uniquely important to the West.”

McCollum and Udall, in their letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, urged the agency to suspend its efforts so that their committees can review the action.

“As required by law and established by longstanding precedent of comity among our Committees and the Agency, we expect you to comply with the requirements laid out in the fiscal year 2020 appropriations for the Agency and to suspend the implementation of this reorganization pending our Committees’ review and approval,” they wrote. 

EPA spokesperson Molly Block said in a statement to The Hill that the agency “followed Congressional notification requirements.” She did not specify how it did so.

“It’s unfortunate Democratic committee leadership doesn’t support finding solutions to longstanding western-lands cross-cutting issues and expediting the remediation of abandoned mine lands across the country,” the statement said.

Read more about the new office and the lawmakers’ concerns here. 

 

Coal ash clash: A group of 55 Democratic lawmakers is urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to abandon a proposal that would extending the life of giant pits filled with toxic coal sludge.

The July proposal extends the life of coal ash ponds for years, giving facilities extra time to dump the arsenic-laden waste if they can’t find anywhere else to put it or have plans to retire one of their coal-burner boilers.

“If finalized, the rule would allow coal users to resume dumping millions of tons of toxic ash into unprotected, leaking and structurally flawed ponds - a gift to polluters that would irreparably damage the environment and jeopardize the health of our people,” lawmakers wrote in a letter spearheaded by Rep. Jaime Raskin (D-Md.).

“Many of these high-risk ponds are already leaking dangerous chemicals, structurally impaired, and located in hazardous geological areas. Adding millions of tons of toxic ash to these unstable sites would endanger thousands of American lives and disproportionately harm low income areas and communities of color.” 

This week, the agency finalized a separate rule rolling back regulations for wastewater from coal-fired power plants, which critics say will allow dangerous substances including arsenic and mercury to leach into waterways.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Portuguese children sue 33 countries over climate change at European court, The Guardian reports

Germany pressed to rethink Nord Stream 2 pipeline after Navalny poisoning, Reuters reports

When coal miners can’t breathe, getting compensation is an uphill legal battle, Marketplace reports

Worst-Ever Arctic Fires Released Record Amount of CO2, Bloomberg reports

 

FROM THE HILL’S OPINION PAGES:

California's blackouts present an example of what not to do, opines Jakob Puckett, a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute.