Overnight Energy & Environment

OVERNIGHT 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

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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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CHANGING THE CALCULUS: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday finalized a rule that eases the permitting process for modifications made to polluting facilities.

The rule changes the way the threshold for a more stringent type of permitting is calculated, with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler arguing that the action incentivizes industry to implement technology that would lessen air pollution.

“This rule incentivizes installation of new technologies that can both improve operator efficiency and reduce air pollution,” he said in a statement.

Whether or not facility modifications trigger the stricter air pollution permitting process is determined using a two-step process.

The first step seeks to determine whether the modification would cause a “significant emissions increase.” The second seeks to determine whether the modification and other projects undertaken at the pollution facility within a specific time frame together result in a significant net increase in pollution emissions.

If both conditions are met, facility modifications need pre-construction permits under a program called New Source Review.

However, the new rule changes the way that the first step is calculated, accounting for both emissions increases and emissions decreases caused by the modification rather than just the increases. 

The change, first proposed last year, codifies a 2018 memo from then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt which said that decreases should be considered in the first step of the process. 

Read more about the new rule here.

STAYING OUT OF TROUBLE: Northern Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park officially closed to all visitors Thursday after a wildfire in the state grew six times its size over a 24-hour period. 

The national park announced the news in an alert on its website and in a tweet, which said that “air quality is hazardous” due to the blaze, adding that it was a “rapidly evolving situation.”

The park on Wednesday had issued a press release stating that the west side of Rocky Mountain would be closed to visitors “due to significant fire activity on the East Troublesome Creek Fire outside of the park.” 

“Travelers should be aware of smoke, wind, weather and fire conditions as fire activity is rapidly changing and road closures may be put in place quickly,” public affairs officer Kyle Patterson said in Wednesday’s statement. 

According to The Washington Post, the East Troublesome Fire grew to about 125,600 acres Thursday morning, extending into Rocky Mountain, with an unknown number of structures reportedly destroyed.

The Post reported that hundreds were forced to evacuate overnight from the Colorado towns of Grand Lake and Granby, with more evacuations anticipated throughout Thursday. 

The East Troublesome Fire is now the fourth-largest wildfire in Colorado history.

Read more about the park closure here.

REVISITING ‘YOU’RE FIRED!’ A new executive order from President Trump makes it easier to hire and fire civil servants who work on policy, stripping some protections from career employees before a potential change in administration.

Federal employee unions are billing the order as the biggest change to federal workforce protections in a century, converting many federal workers to “at will” employment. 

It also makes it easier to hire new employees outside of the competitive process — something critics say could be used to hire policy employees without appropriate experience.

The order specifically targets policy-related career positions, a move critics say will enable the administration to fire employees who may question their policies.

“By targeting federal workers whose jobs involve government policies, the real-world implications of this order will be disastrous for public health, the environment, the defense of our nation, and virtually every facet of our lives,” Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a release.

“Through this order, President Trump has declared war on the professional civil service by giving himself the authority to fill the government with his political cronies who will pledge their unwavering loyalty to him — not to America.”

Trump’s order creates a new category of federal employment, Schedule F, and gives agencies 90 days to determine which policy-related positions should attain the new status. Those employees could then be removed for performance reasons without the opportunity to contest the decision or rely on union representation.

The National Treasury Employees Union, another major federal workforce representative, called it “yet another in a long line of attacks on the civil service and circumvention of the laws passed by Congress to protect certain career federal employees from partisan, political interference.”

Though civil service protections are often compared to tenure for processors, they are similar to processes in place at private companies, where employees must be notified of performance issues and given a chance to improve before being dismissed.

“This is not solving some problem of ‘you can’t get rid of federal employees.’ You can. If people aren’t really performing you can get rid of them. Trust me, I’ve done it,” said Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who previously served as deputy director for fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“But you have to go through the appropriate steps and you have to deal with fair labor laws, which you actually should have to do.”

But Rosenberg sees another potential side effect of the order — current political appointees could be among employees transitioned into the new Schedule F category, a way to “burrow in” employees that typically turn over with a change in administration.

While the new category makes it easier to fire employees for performance issues, they would still be protected from being dismissed “on the basis of the employee’s partisan affiliation.”

Rosenberg gave the example of new employees hired at NOAA that have a history of questioning climate science.

“It’s always going to cut both ways,” he said, “but just gaming this out, the Trump administration can say ‘Oh, it’s not partisan. We’ve had examples [of poor performance] over four years with this person, and they really need to go.’ But Biden coming in would have to build a record showing this isn’t a partisan action.”

Read more about Trump’s action here.

COOLED DOWN RHETORIC:  President Trump privately agreed that climate change could have played a role in the wildfires spreading across California moments after questioning the science behind climate change, according to a report from The New York Times

At a September meeting with California officials, Trump disagreed with panelists including Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who have said climate change exacerbated conditions.

“It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch,” Trump said.

He pushed back when a panelist said the science disagreed, adding, “I don’t think science knows actually.”

But according to the Times, Trump later agreed with Newsom when the cameras were off.

“Gavin, I totally get it, and really it’s probably like 50-50,” Trump said, attributing the fires to both poor forest management — a claim he’s made before — and climate change. 

The White House denied the Time’s report, calling it “not a correct reading of the conversation.”

ON TAP TONIGHT: President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden face off in the final presidential debate. Climate change is one of the topics they’re expected to discuss, alongside the coronavirus pandemic, American families, race in America, national security and leadership. 


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Exxon CEO plans layoffs, underscores faith in fossil fuels, Bloomberg reports

ICYMI: Stories from Thursday…

EPA union buys subscription after agency canceled contract with news outlet dedicated to covering it

EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities

Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants

Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire

Burger King testing reusable food packaging in zero-waste effort

Tags Andrew Wheeler Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Joe Biden Scott Pruitt
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