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Overnight Energy: Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals | Ex-EPA official claims retaliation in lawsuit | Dems seek to uphold ruling ousting Pendley

Overnight Energy: Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals | Ex-EPA official claims retaliation in lawsuit | Dems seek to uphold ruling ousting Pendley
© 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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NO SPOILERS! Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettAlito to far-right litigants: The buffet is open Hispanics shock Democrats in deep blue California COVID-19: Justice Alito overstepped judicial boundaries MORE declined to weigh in on climate change or say whether she’d recuse herself from cases involving the oil industry in written responses to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of its Thursday vote on her confirmation. 

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In response to several questions on climate, Barrett gave responses including “The Supreme Court has described ‘climate change’ as a ‘controversial subject’ and ‘sensitive political topic.’ ’’

“As a sitting judge, it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in further on the matter,” she added. 

The response echoed statements that Barrett made during her confirmation hearing last week, when she said that she did not hold "firm views" on climate change. She added that her opinion on climate is not “relevant” and called the subject a "contentious matter of public debate."

The vast majority of scientists believe that climate change is happening and human-caused. 

Barrett also punted on questions about whether she’d recuse herself from oil companies other than Shell and why the American Petroleum Institute, which her father was involved with, was not on her recusal list. She said that four Shell entities were on her recusal list “in an abundance of caution” because her father worked for Shell Oil Company. 

She did not directly say why she didn’t similarly recuse herself from any other oil or energy companies or the American Petroleum Institute, saying that “the question of recusal is a threshold question of law that must be addressed in the context of the facts of each case.”

“As Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg described the process that Supreme Court justices go through in deciding whether to recuse, it involves reading the statute, reviewing precedents, and consulting with colleagues. As a sitting judge and as a judicial nominee, it would not be appropriate for me to offer an opinion on abstract legal issues or hypotheticals. Such questions can only be answered through the judicial process,” she added. 

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Read more here.

 

ALLEGING RETALIATION: A former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official who spoke out about scandals involving administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittBiden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Democratic lawmaker calls for DOJ investigation of entire Trump administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump races clock on remaining environmental rollbacks | New Interior order undermines conservation bill Trump campaigned on, critics say | Trump administration to further advance lease sales at Arctic refuge: report MORE sued the Trump administration this week, claiming that he was retaliated against. 

Kevin Chmielewski, who served as the deputy chief of staff in 2017 and 2018, sued both the EPA over his removal and the Energy Department for not hiring him. 

Chmielewski's lawsuit alleges that he was “removed for retaliatory reasons and without due process of law because he engaged in a series of allegations to appropriate officials, human resources staff, agency counsel, and Congressional committees that the Administrator was engaged in a pattern and practice of incurring travel expenses, office improvements, and use of staff for personal tasks in violation of federal statutes, regulations and EPA policies.”

While at the EPA, Chmielewski leaked documents and provided information that prompted investigations into scandals like the retroactive altering of Pruitt’s public calendar and a request that staff help him find a condo in Washington.

Pruitt left the agency in 2018 amid a number of ethics controversies and Chmielewski told The Hill at the time that he’d take credit for Pruitt’s departure.

In the suit, the former official also claimed that his actions at the EPA caused him not to be hired by the Energy Department. 

He said that he was “unable to find work” after his removal from the EPA until the Energy Department in March of this year “informed him that he would be hired.”

His lawsuit claimed, however, that White House officials told him in April that “every time they tried to pass his paperwork through, it was stopped by numerous people because of what happened at the EPA with Scott Pruitt due to Plaintiff’s disclosures.”

Read more about the lawsuit here.

 

DOES IT FIT THE BILL? A new bill from Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterPresident is wild card as shutdown fears grow Repealing the Affordable Care Act: Too big a price to pay for veterans Democrats vent to Schumer over Senate majority failure MORE (D-Mont.) and other lawmakers would bar the Trump administration from seeking to overturn the ruling ousting William Perry Pendley from his role as the de facto director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The legislation comes as the Department of the Interior has expressed interest in appealing the decision from U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris that determined Pendley had "served unlawfully ... for 424 days" and tossed major land management plans he oversaw in Montana.

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If the ruling stands, it could have major environmental consequences, giving groups a precedent for fighting other plans that open large swaths of public lands to fossil fuel development.

“William Perry Pendley is not an appropriate choice to lead, work in, or advise any public land management agency due to his record prior to his employment at the Bureau of Land Management, and his continuing work there,” the bill states.

Pendley, a controversial figure due in part to his history of opposing federal ownership of the lands he now manages, served at the department through a series of temporary orders, remaining in the job even after his nomination was withdrawn.

He now serves in a deputy director role, but in recent interviews he has given conflicting responses to the court decision, saying both that he would respect the ruling and that it had "no impact, no impact whatsoever” on his role within the department.

BLM has not had a Senate-approved director for the entirety of the Trump administration.

The legislation would bar the Department of Justice from appealing the case, which was brought by Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race Senate control in flux as counting goes forward in key states MORE (D). 

Though an unusual strategy, it has been used in the past. Democrats offered similar legislation earlier this month that would have barred  the Justice Department from seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. Six Republicans, most in vulnerable reelection races, crossed party lines to vote to advance the bill, though it failed to get the 60 votes necessary.

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Tester’s team said it would push to bring the bill to the floor during the lame-duck session after the election.

Interior said the bill would not withstand legal scrutiny.

“Instead of pushing this patently unconstitutional bill, the Senator’s time would be better spent working with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE on a COVID relief package for the betterment of Montanans and the rest of the country,” the department said in a statement to The Hill. 

Read more about the legislation here.

 

LET’S GET ETHICAL: A former top Interior Department political appointee violated his ethics pledge by taking a meeting with an organization he previously volunteered for, according to a new report from the department’s watchdog.

The report does not identify the official by name, but sources told The Hill the employee in question is Todd Wynn, the former head of Interior’s Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs.

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The report from Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found Wynn violated the Trump ethics pledge, which requires political appointees to recuse themselves from matters involving their former employers or clients for their first two years on the job.

Wynn, now a lobbyist for a major Arizona utility, took a meeting with Rich Lindsey, an energy committee policy consultant from the Council of State Governments.

Wynn previously was on the board of trustees for the Council of State Governments 21st Century Foundation, according to a 2019 request for investigation filed by the Campaign Legal Center. OIG determined the position qualified as a former client under the ethics pledge.

“We identified a number of interactions between the senior political employee and representatives of the former employer—namely, three phone calls and multiple email exchanges [and] one in-person meeting,” OIG wrote, and though “relatively minor in nature, we found that the senior political employee nonetheless did not comply with the ethics pledge.”

The report details that Wynn was not aware his association with the foundation would qualify as employment and bar him from meeting with Lindsey.

“The senior political employee said he understood from that training that he could not communicate with the employer he worked for prior to his volunteer work for the organization. He said, however, that he never considered the organization to be a former employer because he was a volunteer and his position was unpaid,” the report states.

The report also describes an account from Wynn where he sought advice from then director of the ethics office Scott de la Vega while passing in the hallway who told him, “You don’t have a problem.” 

In Interior’s response to the report, the department wrote that “upon receiving accurate and comprehensive ethics guidance, there were no violations” beyond those identified in the report.

Read more about the report here.

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Controversial mining to proceed near Georgia swamp without federal permit, we report

As wildfires explode in the West, Forest Service can’t afford prevention efforts, The Los Angeles Times reports

Less carbon, more electric vehicles: automakers prepare for potential Biden win, Reuters reports

Polluted air killing half a million babies a year across globe, The Guardian

 

ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday… 

Environmental groups sue DHS over use of tear gas at Portland protests

Green groups sue over study of Deepwater Horizon impacts on endangered species

Democrats seek to block appeal of court ruling ousting Pendley, BLM land plans

Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals in written responses

Controversial mining to proceed near Georgia swamp without federal permit

Ex-EPA official who spoke about Pruitt scandals claims retaliation in new lawsuit

Ex-Interior official violated Trump ethics pledge by meeting with former associates: watchdog