With help from Alex Guillén, Annie Snider and Eric Wolff
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— Political officials at EPA overruled career scientists in order to weaken a major health assessment for so-called forever chemicals, sources tell POLITICO.
— EPA will unveil a climate rule today effectively prohibiting the future regulation of greenhouse gases from any stationary industry other than power plants.
— FERC released its agenda late last night for its last meeting under the Trump administration, set for the day before the inauguration.
WELCOME TO WEDNESDAY! I’m your host, Kelsey Tamborrino. The trivia win goes to Andrew Fasoli of the American Chemistry Council for knowing former Tennessee Sen. William Blount was both the Senate’s first case of expulsion and its first impeachment trial. For today: Name the candidates who ultimately won each time in history the House had to decide who won the presidency. Send your tips and trivia answers to [email protected].
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CHEMICAL REACTION: EPA political officials overruled the agency’s career scientists to weaken a major health assessment for the chemical PFBS — one type of PFAS “forever chemicals,” four sources with knowledge of the changes tell Pro’s Annie Snider. A replacement for PFOS, which was phased out in the mid-2000s over health concerns, PFBS has been used for years in military firefighting foam, carpeting and food packaging, and is contaminating the drinking water of an estimated 860,000 Americans.
The changes open the door for state and federal regulators to potentially set less stringent cleanup standards and drinking water limits. The assessment has been in the works for more than three years, Annie reports, and has been a particular concern for the Defense Department, which faces massive cleanup liability. The draft assessment EPA released for public comment in November 2018 took the standard approach of providing a single number describing how toxic the chemical is to humans, called a “reference dose.”
But the final assessment sent to the White House for review Monday replaces that with a range of values, the sources said, a change made by staffers in the agency’s pesticides office at the direction of political officials — not the career scientists at EPA who specialize in assessing the human health risks of chemicals. The alterations were so alarming that several of the career EPA scientists who spent years working on the study have asked that their names be removed from the document, two of the sources said.
Environmental advocates say the range approach would allow industry and state and local officials to “cherry-pick” the number they like best. Two of the sources told Annie the new range of references doses include slightly weaker values than EPA forward put forward in November, but said the most alarming part isn’t the numbers themselves, since the conclusion is still that PFBS is dangerous at very low levels of exposure. Rather, it’s the fact that political officials upended the scientific process to arrive at them.
“It’s not orders of magnitudes, but that’s irrelevant. How much does it matter if you get one drop or two drops of cyanide?” said the source, a senior EPA scientist.
At the same time, the Trump administration moved to inject greater White House influence over future such chemical assessments, issuing a memo from OMB on Friday that requires all health assessments from EPA’s premiere risk assessors to go through interagency review. The move effectively reinstates a process that was in place under the George W. Bush administration, which a government watchdog found “limits the credibility” of assessments from the Integrated Risk Information System, which has for years been a top target for the chemicals industry, Republicans on Capitol Hill and Trump’s EPA research chief, David Dunlap.
TRUMP EYES HEFTY CUTS TO EPA: The Trump administration is attempting to claw back more than $800 million from EPA as part of a package of spending cuts that will be sent to Congress this week. Trump promised to introduce the recission package last month after raising objections to the year-end funding and coronavirus relief package. It has zero chance of gaining traction on Capitol Hill, but even just the request typically causes the funds to be frozen by OMB for 45 days.
The EPA cuts would slice more than $500 million from EPA’s grants to states, more than $200 million from its research and development office, $80 million from the Diesel Emissions Reduction Program, $9 million from the agency’s environmental justice work and almost all of the funding tagged for environmental education, according to a person familiar with the request.
EPA BLOCKS FUTURE CLIMATE RULES: Just a week before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, EPA will publish a rule today to effectively prohibit the future regulation of greenhouse gases from any stationary industry other than power plants, POLITICO’s Alex Guillén reports.
Any stationary source whose industry-wide emissions make up less than 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution will be deemed “necessarily insignificant without consideration of any other factors” under the rule, meaning it would not qualify for regulation under Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act. That section was primarily how the Obama administration regulated greenhouse gases from power plants and other sources. The 3 percent threshold would appear to exclude every stationary greenhouse gas polluter in the U.S. aside from power plants.
Surprise! The vehicle for the rule was included in a long-planned Trump administration regulation that had originally been aimed at a much narrower target: Easing greenhouse gas limits for coal plants that might be built in the future. EPA never sought public comment on the proposal to exempt a wide swath of industries from carbon restrictions, and did not respond to questions about the rule, including whether it complied with requirements to provide public notice and seek comment on rules.
NHTSA DELAYS PENALTY HIKE FOR AUTOMAKERS: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that a 150 percent jump in civil penalties for automakers that don’t meet fuel economy requirements won’t take effect until model year 2022, a move that could save manufacturers hundreds of millions of dollars. A panel of three Trump-appointed judges in August overturned NHTSA’s reversal of the Obama-era increase in penalties from $5.50 per tenth of a mile per gallon to $14, reinstating the higher fines.
In an interim final rule to be published on Thursday, NHTSA said it would be “unfair and improper” to apply it to the 2021 model year, for which automakers have already locked in plans. The rule doesn’t say exactly how much that will save automakers, but the industry warned that the original increase would cost up to $1 billion a year. Though manufacturers applauded the decision, critics balked, with Union of Concerned Scientists analyst Dave Cooke calling it “some last minute favors” for industry. NHTSA will take 10 days of public comments, though it argues that doing so is “unnecessary.”
YAZOO SUIT DROPS: Environmental groups filed suit against EPA Tuesday, challenging the Trump administration’s approval of a Mississippi flood project that was vetoed by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2008. The suit, brought by Earthjustice on behalf of American Rivers, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, argues the agency violated the Clean Water Act and the Administrative Procedures Act by advancing the project that would drain tens of thousands of acres of wetlands.
THE FERC PLAN: The agenda for the last FERC meeting during the Trump administration — and presumably the last one under Republican Chairman James Danly for at least four years — is jam packed with items. The docket didn’t come out until after 10 p.m. Tuesday night, and the 19 items labeled “omitted” may be one reason why: Those are items Danly has hoped to take up at the meeting but had to drop, though the rules require the numbers stay on the agenda.
Democratic Commissioner Allison Clements has begun voting on measures, but it’s not clear whether Republican Commissioner Mark Christie, who was sworn in on Jan. 4, will join the votes, and whether he votes at the meeting could determine the success or failure of many of the items. The meeting will be on Jan. 19, the day before the inauguration, but was scheduled long before November’s election. Biden will almost certainly move the gavel to either Democratic Commissioner Rich Glick or Clements soon after he is sworn in. If Christie votes, then Republican commissioner and former Chairman Neil Chatterjee may be the swing vote on most of the issues.
Transmission incentives: The commission has faced increasing pressure to find a way to motivate utilities to build more transmission lines, and the top of the power agenda appears to try to address the issue. The “Electric Transmission Incentives Policy” will begin a process that both Glick and Clements have said will be priorities for them under the Biden administration: linking renewable generation in the Midwest and sun belt to population centers on the coasts.
More MOPR, more problems: Three agenda items tackle FERC’s ongoing efforts to counter state subsidies to clean energy by requiring price floors in capacity markets. Several utilities are challenging the New York ISO’s implementation of its Minimum Offer Price Rule, seeking a rule that more closely resembles the implementation FERC approved for the PJM Interconnection in October. And PJM’s own MOPR implementation will also be the subject of an order as utilities, including Calpine and Dynegy, ask FERC to reconsider its October implementation order.
Generation plus storage: The commission is poised to act on the information it gleaned from a technical conference in October that focused on interconnection rules for generation plus storage projects. Regulators have long struggled over whether to deem batteries as generation, transmission, or something else, and FERC seems ready to provide some clarity.
The pipeline pipeline: FERC isn’t going to leave the natural gas industry hanging before a Democrat takes control of the agenda. The commission has an item called “certain exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act” that could be an effort to help pipelines and LNG terminals avoid being forced to calculate downstream greenhouse gas emissions, a Democratic priority dating back to the Obama administration. The commission will consider certificates for 12 pipeline and gas transmission projects, including two for the Mountain Valley Pipeline and PennEast in the mid-Atlantic. It will also consider take up approvals for three LNG projects, including Jordan Cove and Golden Pass LNG Terminal.
CLEAN ENERGY MAINTAINS SLOW JOBS GROWTH: The U.S. clean energy sector closed out 2020 with its fewest number of workers since 2015, according to a new report this morning from BW Research Partnership. The sector added back nearly 16,900 jobs in December, leaving the total number of clean energy workers who are unemployed at about 429,300 since February 2020, and marking a 12 percent decline over pre-coronavirus employment levels.
Those figures mean last year was the first year clean energy saw a decline in jobs compared with the previous year. It also means that 10 months after the pandemic first took hold in the U.S., 70 percent of the sector’s lost jobs have not returned, according to the report. At the rate of recovery since June — when the sector began adding back jobs after months of losses — it would take two and a half years for the sector to reach pre-pandemic employment levels, and another year on top of that to hit the levels projected for 2020 before the pandemic.
The grim outlook comes as Biden has pitched his clean energy plan as a job creator. The sector cheered the inclusion of a host of clean energy tax incentives as part of last year’s omnibus passed by Congress. But Gregory Wetstone, the president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in a statement his group is looking forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress “to move past the endless cycle of temporary stopgap measures and finally enact the kind of comprehensive, long-term, scientifically-driven climate policy that puts millions to work building the clean energy future Americans want and deserve.”
GARLAND OFF THE CASE: Judge Merrick Garland, now the nominee for attorney general, has been replaced on a case to decide EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases from trailers. He was part of a panel that heard arguments in September but had not yet ruled; on Tuesday, the court said Garland has been replaced by Gregory Katsas, a Trump appointee. It’s possible for two judges to rule when a third drops out if they agree — but the swap could indicate the remaining two judges, Obama appointee Patricia Millett and Trump appointee Justin Walker, were at odds on at least one issue. If so, the substitution of Katsas for Garland could change the balance on the panel, though it’s likely we won’t know how things played out behind closed doors.
— No such swap was announced in another pending case Garland heard challenging EPA’s 2019 RFS mandates. That change could still be to come, or the other judges on the case may not need a third to settle the matter.
— Rita Baranwal joined the Electric Power Research Institute as its new vice president of nuclear energy and chief nuclear officer. Baranwal recently served as the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for nuclear power, and announced her departure Friday.
— Trump EPA water chief David Ross has landed at the D.C. law firm Troutman Pepper, where he will be a partner in the firm’s Environmental and Natural Resources Practice Group.
— J.J. Ong joined international mining company Freeport-McMoRan Inc. as vice president-federal government relations and international affairs. Most recently, he served as director of federal and international government affairs for Chevron.
— Jason Kowalski, a former policy director at 350.org, is now policy director at The Democracy Collaborative.
— “‘Smear campaign’: Former Michigan governor blasts state AG for reported Flint charges,” via POLITICO Pro.
— “Trump officials reassigned by White House after publishing controversial climate papers without approval,” via The Washington Post.
— “U.S. crude output to decline less than previously forecast in 2021: EIA,” via Reuters.
— “EPA plans Scott Pruitt’s portrait unveiling,” via E&E News.
— “Covid-19 took a bite from U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020,” via The New York Times.
THAT’S ALL FOR ME!