The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population

The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population
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Today is Monday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a new newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Sign up for the newsletter here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

A marauding mob of marsupials has obliterated an Australian island’s entire penguin population, Donna Lu reported in The Guardian on Monday. Officials had introduced 28 Tasmanian devils to Maria Island in 2012, in an attempt to safeguard the species from a deadly facial tumor disease. But the devils — notorious for their endless appetite and short fuse — have now eliminated the 3,000 breeding pairs of little penguins who inhabited the island a decade ago.

To Eric Woehler, from the nongovernmental organization BirdLife Tasmania, such a “catastrophic impact” on a bird species was unsurprising. “Every time humans have deliberately or accidentally introduced mammals to oceanic islands, there’s always been the same outcome,” he told The Guardian.

The threat of such accidental destruction and environmental imbalance hangs over our decisionmaking processes as we strive to ensure a sustainable future. And we’ll be digging through the media to bring you fresh content about that future, every evening. 

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines sustainability as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Nothing has rattled our ability to achieve a productive equilibrium like the past pandemic year. Going forward, sustainability will be inseparable from our governance and business practices, as we cope with the clash of an expanding population and finite resources.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein, operating out of Washington, D.C., and Sharon Udasin, based in Boulder, Colo. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.



‘Not your grandfather’s wildfires’

Aftermath of Oregon Fall 2020 wildfires

An unforgiving heat wave seized the Western U.S. last week before summer even began, with record-breaking temperatures and wildfires sweeping across the region — spurred on by dry thunderstorms and windy conditions. By Friday, the National Interagency Fire Center reported that 33 active large fires had burned nearly 400,000 acres across 10 states, topping the year-to-date 10-year average. 

Equilibrium spoke on Thursday to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats release data showing increase in 'mega-IRA' accounts Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-Ore.), who warned that this summer’s fires will be different from what firefighters and administrators have dealt with in the past. And the question of what the fires will bring is “what people talk about in the local coffee shops all over the West.”

We’re including an excerpt of that interview below, but you can read the full conversation here.

Equilibrium: At Thursday’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, you addressed U.S. Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen about wildfire preparedness. One point you made was that “This year in the West, we could be looking at the prospect of multiple fires, big ones, at the same time.” You asked how the Forest Service is planning to make sure that we can share resources this summer or, possibly, get more. What do you think will happen in the short-term?

Wyden: Let me build on what I said to the chief. The record level drought and heat that has already been showing up in the West makes our region look like a tinderbox ready to go up in the flames.  

I described a recent visit to Medford in southern Oregon. It was the hottest day in history that spring day. Weather officials called in to give it the highest warning level. … It, of course, comes on the heels of the devastating 2020 wildfire season in my state — thousands of Oregonians displaced, communities where I’ve held town hall meetings reduced to ash. … 

Today’s fires are not your grandfather’s wildfires. They are bigger, they are hotter, they are more severe, and they’re compounded by the climate. 

At Thursday’s Energy and National Resources hearing, you gave the Forest Service a week to come back to you with a plan. Are you confident they will do so?

What I can tell you is: I think this is so urgent. I want this turned around quickly, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on. … My question to the chief today, which is what I went home with when I got on the plane from the visit I made, is — what happens if we have big fires, big dangerous fires, in multiple parts of the West at the same time? What will be done then? Fire seasons in the past were shorter and staggered. My concern now is, what happens if the fires keep coming at the West this summer and into the future, simultaneously? 

You’ve requested a plan from the Forest Service, but what can practically be done, if the necessary budget doesn’t exist?

The role of the committee historically has been to give the chief and the agency the tools they need to do the job. … When I see what they are planning in terms of this year on preparedness, with the threat of something that goes beyond what we’ve seen in the past, of course we’ll go to the next level and say, what kind of tools do you need to deal with this? It can be tankers and personnel and drones and all of the above in terms of firefighting capacity. 

But the request is to have a plan, to make sure that you know what it is they are looking at in their view and to assess the plan so that if there are gaps in resources … the [Forest] Service has let me and the other Western senators know what needs to be done, and we will fight like hell to get them the resources.

Click here to read the full interview with Wyden.



A MESSAGE FROM NEXTERA ENERGY

As the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy, NextEra Energy is pioneering innovation on green hydrogen – the solution for deep decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors. See how at NextEraEnergy.com.



A complicated dance on infrastructure

The fate of American’s physical infrastructure hangs in a fragile balance, as politicians on both sides of the aisle haggle over billions of dollars’ worth of upgrades to the highways that take us places, the pipes that furnish our water and the cables that connect our Zoom chats.

The passage of an infrastructure bill — whether the roughly $1 trillion package proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, or the roughly $6 trillion package favored by progressives like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Angst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (I-Vt.) — will require lawmakers to compromise on the competing demands of congressional conservatives and progressives, while also figuring out how to fund such a package. And with the extended July 4 recess just around the corner, legislators are racing to come up with a workable deal.

A tale of two plans. In the complex negotiations over the future of the nation's infrastructure — ranging from roads, rail, metro and bridges to new broadband and energy development — two major initiatives have emerged.

The bipartisan Senate initiative, which would include $579 billion in new spending over eight years, is favored by a group of 21 senators, divided about evenly between Republicans and Democrats; meanwhile, progressives are pushing for a far larger package with a more explicit focus on climate adaptation and the clean energy transition — two bills that are moving together in what Bloomberg’s Steven T. Dennis called a "two-track strategy" that is likely to take until September to be resolved.

Progressives feel the bipartisan deal is insufficient, while the bipartisan group is pushing back on the size of the Sanders proposal. “President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE, if you want an infrastructure deal of a trillion dollars, it's there for the taking,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar Trump takes two punches from GOP The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-S.C.), part of the bipartisan group, said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding that “if you pick a $6 trillion reconciliation package, I think you'll get a lot of pushback from every Republican." 



MANCHIN ENTERS THE FRAY

A new proposal. Meanwhile, on Monday, Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE (D-W.Va.) — chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a member of the bipartisan group — proposed a narrower energy bill that may merge with one of the larger proposals.

The Manchin proposal seemed to be a "wish list for the energy infrastructure spending portion of a larger deal," which includes money to keep struggling nuclear plants online; billions to reduce methane by capping abandoned oil wells; and tens of billions to help upgrade the electric grid, Jeremy Dillon and Geof Koss of E&E News reported (paywall).

But how to pay for it? There's a committee hearing scheduled on the Manchin bill on Thursday. But as the week begins, the biggest debate in Washington hinges not just on what the country should pay but also on how that money will be raised — an issue that reveals sharp divisions among progressives, liberals and conservatives.

What we’re watching. The White House has remained canny on how Biden feels about the competing proposals. But this week, Psaki told reporters, the president will be in talks with lawmakers trying to bridge the divide.



A MESSAGE FROM NEXTERA ENERGY

We’re pioneering innovation on green hydrogen – the solution for deep decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors. See how it can create jobs, accelerate economic growth and more at NextEraEnergy.com.



ROUND-UP

MONDAY MISCELLANIES

Electric vehicle sign

While we’re on the subject of infrastructure, here are three pieces of news about how electric vehicles (EVs) can contribute to the grid, how other electric vehicle companies — rather, their executives — are getting in trouble and a disputed refinery that is going offline for good.

 

New York City school buses to serve as backup power storage this summer

  • Three electric school buses parked at a depot in White Plains, N.Y., will “serve as a big battery bank, storing power and feeding it to Con Edison’s electrical grid when demand is high,” Maria Gallucci reported in Grist.
  • The demonstration project is among dozens of “vehicle-to-grid” initiatives nationwide that aim to maximize the energy storage capacity of large EV batteries, according to Grist. While this project involves only three vehicles — generating about 33.5 kilowatts daily — 8,000 school buses operate in Con Ed’s service area.
  • Storage has been the Achilles’s heel of the global electrification effort. With renewables on the rise, EV batteries could serve as backup when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, the report explained. Private EVs that have similar two-way charging capabilities, such as the Ford F-150, could also appeal to individual consumers as backup power sources for their homes and appliances, the piece added.

EV truck executives sold off stocks before reporting financial results

  • Five top executives at electric-truck startup Lordstown Motors Corp. sold more than $8 million in stock in February, ahead of reporting financial results, Ben Foldy reported in The Wall Street Journal.
  • Lordstown, which went public in October and plans to build electric trucks at a former General Motors plant, reported year-end results in March — a net loss of 23 cents per share for the quarter, more than double analysts’ expectations, according to The Wall Street journal.
  • Lordstown, according to The New York Times, was one of the first EV startups to engage in a big merger with a special purpose acquisition company — a holding company that raises funds from investors in hopes of finding a merger partner, before a report by a short-seller revealed it had mischaracterized its sales. The Securities and Exchange Commission has been investigating the merger. 

Disputed St. Croix refinery to shutter ‘indefinitely’

  • A U.S.-owned oil refinery on the island St. Croix announced that it is shutting down “indefinitely,” following Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) orders to halt operations last month, Zack Budryk reported in The Hill.
  • The company was unable to obtain the capital necessary to restart operations, according to a statement released by the firm, Limetree Bay Energy. “Unfortunately, this is our only option, given the extreme financial constraints facing the company,” said Jeff Rinker, Limetree Bay’s CEO.
  • The EPA had ordered a 60-day closure of the refinery in May, after residents of St. Croix reported that the facility had sprayed oil vapor into residential areas, The Hill reported. 
  • The facility had only reopened in February, following a series of spills that resulted in $5 million in EPA fines and the plant’s shutdown in 2012, a previous Hill piece said.



Should we stay or should we go? One of the most important — and most controversial — sustainability measures in the coming decades will be the idea of “managed retreat.” That’s the idea that, as certain areas become uninhabitable, thanks to rising risk from floodwaters or wildfire, we find “a way to get people and assets out of harm's way as equitably and efficiently as possible,” Radley Horton, a research professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute said.

This week, we’ll be reporting from a conference Horton's helping run on the topic at Columbia, tracing what the future decades hold for the American landscape — and how we get people safely out of places that are becoming inhospitable to human life.

That’s Equilibrium. See you tomorrow evening.

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