Overnight Energy & Environment

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten key air pollution standards | Despite risks to polar bears, Trump pushes ahead with oil exploration in Arctic | Biden to champion climate action in 2021

HAPPY MONDAY! 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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Zoonotic diseases, natural disasters, and regional instability caused by food and water scarcity anywhere in the world could cause ripple effects here at home. Could many of our national security challenges be preempted with strong international nature conservation? What role is the US currently playing in preserving our natural world and are additional efforts needed? Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Jeff Fortenberry, Chrissy Houlahan and Adam Kinzinger join former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Philippe Cousteau. RSVP here.  

WHEELER ARGUES THE CURRENT STANDARD NAAQS IT OUT OF THE PARK: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declined to tighten air quality standards for the pollutant soot despite studies showing stricter standards could save thousands of lives. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced during a virtual press conference Monday the agency would retain current air quality standards for both fine and coarse forms of particulate matter (PM), which is commonly known as soot. 

The EPA in April proposed keeping the current standards despite staff questioning whether they were adequate.

Findings reviewed by the agency have linked long-term exposure to fine particle pollution to as many as 52,100 premature deaths and suggested that stricter standards could save thousands of people. 

In particular, particulate matter has been linked to heart and lung issues, according to the agency. 

The current standards were put forth by the Obama administration in 2012 and limits particulate matter in the air to 12 micrograms per cubic meter, which was tighter than a previous standard. 

“We believe that the current standard is protective of public health,” Wheeler said at the time that retaining the Obama-era standard was proposed. 

However, in January, EPA staff concluded that scientific evidence and air quality analyses “can reasonably be viewed as calling into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the combination of the current … standards” for fine particulate matter.

“A conclusion that the current … standards do provide adequate public health protection would place little weight on the broad body of epidemiologic evidence reporting generally positive and statistically significant health effect associations,” they wrote. 

In recent months, studies have also linked higher exposure to pollution to worse coronavirus outcomes. 

Clean air advocates raised opposition to Monday’s decision, saying the EPA should have adopted stricter standards. 

“More people will die because we are continuing to expose individuals to elevated levels of pollution,” Paul Billings, the senior vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association, told The Hill. 

“People of color [and] people of low income already bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to PM pollution and so by failing to set a more protective standard, these communities are going to continue to suffer disproportionate impacts,” Billings added.

Read more on the standards here

COULD LEAD TO AN ACTUAL POLAR PLUNGE: The Trump administration is pushing ahead to greenlight oil exploration in the Arctic, allowing companies to use seismic testing that will disturb polar bears in their dens.

The proposal, if finalized, would allow the oil exploration technique in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to begin as soon as Jan. 21 — the day after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

There are roughly 900 southern Beaufort Sea polar bears left in the Arctic.

“On the way out, the Trump administration is still pandering to its oil industry cronies and jamming through an unpopular push to drill in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Robert Dewey, vice president for government relations at Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement, warning that “polar bear dens are hard to pinpoint in the snowy Arctic.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal would allow “harassment” of polar bears, determining that seismic testing would disturb wildlife in the area, “causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

The late-filed notice gives the Trump administration little time to take comment and finalize the process before the Biden administration enters, requiring a much-hastened pace over a process that typically lasts several months at a minimum.

“Do they have the ability to rush this out the door? Probably. But is it legal or easily defensible in court? I highly doubt it,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group.

The announcement follows an unusual move by the government to open its own study on the risks to polar bears to public comment.

Experts said it’s highly unusual for any branch of the Interior Department to post one scientific study for comment rather than a body of peer-reviewed research that accompanies a policy decision.

“What it looks like to me is they’re giving industry the opportunity to negate the study,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said when the study was first opened for comment in February.

The story is here

AND SPEAKING OF THE ARCTIC: Three Democratic lawmakers are raising legal questions about the rapid timeline the Trump administration is using to advance oil and gas development at a wildlife refuge in the Arctic. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated in a federal register notice that was published Monday that it must receive bids for land leases by Dec. 31, though they won’t be opened until Jan. 6. 

In a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose department oversees the BLM, Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Jared Huffman (Calif.) and Alan Lowenthal (Calif.) argued that requiring bids 23 days after the notice of sale likely goes against the bureau’s regulations. 

They noted that a regulation requires the notice to be published 30 days before the sale date. 

Read more on the legal hangups here

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING…A NEW ADMINISTRATION: Climate change is poised to receive a much bigger spotlight in 2021 as President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration puts a renewed focus on tackling various environmental and energy issues.

Biden has made combating climate change one of his top priorities when he enters office and has set a goal to make the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050 while pushing different ways to reduce emissions.

While Biden’s focus on climate change is set to mark a drastic shift in U.S. policy compared to the Trump administration, complexities in the rulemaking process and pushback from a likely divided government could slow some of his moves.

Read more on what to watch on environmental policy in 2021 here

WE’RE NO. 2! Nissan became the second automaker to withdraw from a suit challenging California’s right to set tougher emissions standards Friday, following General Motors in abandoning their support of the Trump administration argument in the case. 

The automaker, like GM, referenced the incoming Biden administration as a factor in the decision to leave the suit.

“We are confident that productive conversations among the auto industry, the Biden administration and California can deliver a common-sense set of national standards that increases efficiency and meets the needs of all American drivers,” Nissan said in a statement.


Biden is making the case for deficit spending on climate, E&E reports

Nearly 30% of FEMA Employees Say They’ve Experienced Workplace Harassment, Earther reports

Exxon Holds Back on Technology That Could Slow Climate Change, Bloomberg reports

Officials: Flint makes progress toward ending water crisis, The Associated Press reports

ICYMI: Stories from Monday…

Democrats question legality of speedy Arctic refuge oil lease sales

GAO finds lack of funding, aging equipment plague national air pollution monitoring system

Despite risks to polar bears, Trump pushes ahead with oil exploration in Arctic

EPA declines to tighten key air pollution standards

November 2020 was warmest recorded, EU program says

Biden to champion climate action in 2021

Tags Adam Kinzinger Alan Lowenthal Andrew Wheeler Jared Huffman Jeff Fortenberry Joe Biden Sally Jewell
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