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OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Emails show Interior ethics officials raised concerns over video promoting Trump | Endangered Species rollback faced early pushback within administration | 17 states sue EPA for declining to tighten air pollution standards

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Emails show Interior ethics officials raised concerns over video promoting Trump | Endangered Species rollback faced early pushback within administration | 17 states sue EPA for declining to tighten air pollution standards
© 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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TODAY’S THEME IS: EMAILS. EMAILS, BROUGHT TO YOU BY FOIA.

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-At Interior… Ethics officials at the Interior Department warned communications staff about posting a video in October touting President TrumpDonald TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call MORE’s conservation record that critics characterized as propaganda, according to emails obtained by The Hill.

The video in question praises the “Trump administration conservation record” and was shared by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who tagged President Trump in his Twitter post.

The video drew swift criticism from watchdog groups that said it may have violated ethics laws and the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from electioneering at work.

Newly revealed emails shared with The Hill show that Interior’s own ethics staff raised similar concerns before the video was made public.

Heather Gottry, director of Interior’s Departmental Ethics Office, wrote in one email that she wanted to “flag some concerns for further consideration,” noting the video focused on past actions of the department rather than a new initiative as they would prefer.

“In context, a tweet and video highlighting the ‘Trump Administration Conservation Record’ published one week before election day where President Trump is a candidate for reelection, may be perceived by outside stakeholders as a ‘closing argument’ for the President’s reelection as opposed to an official communication announcing a specific government activity or achievement,” Gottry wrote, noting that it did not directly violate the Hatch Act.

“Given the proximity to the election, the overall tone and tenor of the video may be viewed by outside stakeholders as similar to campaign or other partisan political advocacy videos, and as a result may prompt questions or concerns to be raised with the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel,” she added.

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Interior communications director Nick Goodwin appeared to take that as a green light for distribution, thanking Gottry in an email for the review and “confirming that the video/tweet is in compliance and not a violation.”

A separate set of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) show Goodwin wanted to "push back" after an Obama-era Interior employee criticized the video and said he would have been fired for posting similar content.

“This is a propaganda video created with your tax dollars meant to bolster the President’s chances of being re-elected. This is way outside the lines,” Tim Fullerton, former digital strategy director at Interior, tweeted at the time.

The emails, along with texts obtained by CREW, suggest Goodwin was involved with the department’s Twitter response to Fullerton.

“I want to push back on this,” an Interior employee wrote to Goodwin via text.

“Our tweets are approved by career ethics attorneys and thankfully no longer overseen by you. @Interior increased the number of ethics staff by 250% to remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration to invest in the ethics program,” the agency employee wrote.

Goodwin gave the go-ahead, and that line was later tweeted by the Interior press office.

The emails are part of a broader pattern of promoting Trump.

The emails obtained by CREW also show Goodwin wanted more promotion of Trump in agency tweets.

Goodwin pushed employees at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), part of the Interior Department, to use Trump’s Twitter handle in posts, even as they raised concerns over legal issues, the documents show.

“This is an inadequate post. In comparison to other tweets that USGS puts out, it’s clear that the effort was lacking,” Goodwin wrote in late September, in discussing how to share on social media an op-ed written by the head of USGS.

“Mentioning that the President (and using his official @realDonaldTrump handle) signed this legislation into law authorizing USGS to establish the National Volcano Early Warning System to better protect communities would have been a good option as illustrated by the director,” he wrote.

Those efforts clearly alarmed USGS communications director Gavin Shire, who flagged them as a potential violation of the Hatch Act.

Read more about his concerns here.

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-At Fish and Wildlife… The U.S. agency responsible for marine fisheries considered pulling out of a recent Trump administration rollback of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) over a disagreement with political appointees at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), according to emails obtained by The Hill.

The emails from a Freedom of Information Act request show that during last year’s rulemaking process, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) considered withdrawing its support for a joint rule with FWS that makes it harder for areas to receive critical habitat protections.

The emails, though heavily redacted, reveal that NMFS officials were concerned with the “course” chosen by Trump officials at FWS in pursuing the rollback.

NMFS, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), appeared ready to back out in April.

“We appear to be at a fork in the road,” FWS assistant director for ecological services Gary Frazer wrote to agency director Aurelia Skipwith.

The next paragraph in the email was redacted, but Frazer added that NMFS and NOAA would “stay on board” if FWS was open to working through White House Office of Management and Budget comments and “willing to consider substantive changes to the draft.”

A day later, Frazer wrote to FWS colleagues that he “heard back from the director” and that “she and the rest of the political team understand that this course may cause NMFS and NOAA to withdraw from this rulemaking.”

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Spokespeople for NMFS and FWS, which is part of the Interior Department, declined to provide specifics on what caused the dispute.

Critics say the emails indicate that efforts by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to roll back the ESA have encountered pushback, even within the administration.

Read more about the exchange here

SEE YOU IN COURT: A coalition of 17 states and New York City are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its decision not to tighten major air pollution standards. 

The petition for review of the decision to retain current standards for fine particulate matter didn’t detail the states’ legal arguments. 

However, a press release from California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court strikes down Trump coal power plant rule | Green groups sue after Trump administration strips bird protections | Trump administration rushes to wrap Arctic oil leases on last day in office MORE’s (D) office said that they are arguing that the EPA “conducted a flawed and unlawfully biased review” and that “the available science clearly demonstrates the need for the EPA to strengthen the [standard].”

“Study after study shows the negative health impacts of particulate matter pollution to our most vulnerable communities,” Becerra, whom President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenDC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Joe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East Biden shouldn't let defeating cancer take a backseat to COVID MORE plans to nominate as Health and Human Services secretary, said in the release. “History books will record unkindly the Trump Administration's callous disregard for their lives and the willful denial of science and the law.”

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The EPA in December finalized a decision to retain the standards set by the Obama administration in 2012 for both fine and coarse forms of particulate matter, commonly known as soot. 

Findings reviewed by the agency in its decision-making have linked long-term exposure to fine particle pollution to tens of thousands of deaths and suggested that stricter standards could save thousands of lives. 

Read more on the suit here

POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCE: The American Petroleum Institute (API), a leading oil and gas lobbying group will consider last week’s attack on the Capitol in its decisions to make political contributions, the group’s president said Wednesday. 

“API supports candidates that support our mission of supplying reliable and affordable and cleaner energy to the world. What happened on January 6, will be a factor in how we consider our political giving going forward,” API president and CEO Mike Sommers told reporters. 

Sommers declined to answer questions about which lawmakers could be impacted, saying he didn’t want to “speculate.”

Some oil companies have also announced that they’d be suspending their political contributions in the wake of the event, which left five people dead. 

WHAT WE’RE READING:

Trump’s EPA team overrules career scientists on toxic chemical, Politico reports

Female scientists focus on a secret weapon to fight climate change: Moms, The Washington Post reports

Cuomo promotes new efforts to expand renewable energy in New York, The Buffalo News reports