Climate, Politics/Capitol Light©, is a service of The JBS Group and Civil Notion
Volume 1 July 25, 2019 Issue 19
This Week’s Notion: There auto be a law.
From the Washington Post:
Four automakers from three continents have struck a deal with California to produce more fuel-efficient cars for their U.S. fleets in coming years, undercutting one of the Trump administration’s most aggressive climate policy rollbacks.
The compromise between the California Air Resources Board and Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America came after weeks of secret negotiations and could shape future U.S. vehicle production, even as White House officials aim to relax gas mileage standards for the nation’s cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs.
The deal reached between California and the four auto companies is truly extraordinary both in terms of why the deal came about and the position in which it puts the Trump administration. Since Day 1 of the Trump presidency, the auto industry had been hoping to re-negotiate the deal it struck with the Obama administration on auto and light truck fuel efficiency standards (CAFE) for the period 2021 through 2026.
Over the past two and a half years of the Trump administration, the auto industry has learned the meaning of the phrase be careful what you wish for; as it just might come true. The bad news came to industry representatives in late February on a conference call with the White House. They were told that the administration had cut-off any further conversations with California officials and was going ahead with its proposed Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule freezing the standards at 2020 levels.
The freeze has been called the Trump administration’s most environmentally significant regulatory rollback yet" by the Rhodium Group following its penetrating analysis of the rule’s impact on the environment. The call is not surprising. The transportation sector has surpassed electricity as the major contributor of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere; and, Trump’s efficiency 36.9 mpg is standard is 14.5 mpg more lenient than Obama’s 51.4 mpg.
According to the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, the Trump administration’s plan to freeze mileage standards between 2020 and 2026 would increase greenhouse-gas emissions by between 16 million and 37 million metric tons in that period. It is the equivalent of adding between 3.4 million and 7.8 million cars on the road.
The simple fact of the matter is that automakers never wanted the rollback. What they wanted was more time to reach the 51.4 mpg goal, some flexibility in how to achieve it, and a single national standard.
Regulatory responsibility for establishing the auto emission standards is shared by three entities—the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). CARB is included because of the California waiver provision in the Clean Air Act that allows the federal government to issue a waiver to the state so that it may establish a stricter standard than the one established by the federal government.
The deal reached by the automakers and CARB reflects what the industry had asked of the Trump administration but was clearly not going to get. According to the agreement:
Although it is unclear at this point whether the remaining auto manufacturers will sign on to the agreement, the chances are good they will. Why they would is a matter of market dynamics. First, California is a large auto market. Although the Trump administration wants to rescind the CAA waiver, the rescission is being challenged in court.
Unless the courts stay the waiver while the case is being decided, California will go ahead with the agreement’s schedule of escalating efficiency targets. The auto companies not currently on the agreement could as a practical matter find themselves forced to build to the higher standard or risk losing out to the four signatory companies. It is the same dynamic that prompted the industry to have a single national standard in the first place.
The auto market under the terms of the agreement is actually much larger than California. Although the CAA waiver is only available to California, other states are free to follow California’s mark. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia follow the California rule. Together these jurisdictions have a population of 140 million people.
California along with 16 other states and the District of Columbia filed their first suit over the standard and the waiver in 2018—after the Trump administration showed its hand by announcing its intention to freeze the standard and stopped talking to California regulators.
Early this month the Trump administration appeared to have abandoned its initial strategy for defending the rollback of Obama-era clean car rules against court challenges—as reported by E&E News. Whether the shock of the agreement will change that strategy is unknown at this point.
An EPA spokesman said the voluntary framework is a PR stunt that does nothing to further the one national standard that will provide certainty and relief for American consumers. The statement was ironic, given the fact that the four companies had grown frustrated with the refusal of the Trump administration to listen to their concerns and suggestions.
It had become clear to the companies—actually to the industry—that whatever the administration was proposing to do was not going to be settled for years. Markets hate uncertainty.
There is no reason to believe that the administration won’t just go ahead with what it was planning to do. Under the terms of the Clean Air Act and the decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA, the federal government is obligated to regulate tailpipe emissions. Should other auto manufacturers join the California agreement—and there’s some evidence suggesting they are at least considering it—it is possible that whatever the administration does end up doing will lack relevance.
There are additional advantages to be gained by the auto industry’s agreeing to the California deal. Should Trump lose his re-election bid, a Democratic administration would immediately rescind the lower rule and replace it with the Obama-era standard. The higher standards and adoption of other climate-conscious technologies and designs will also position automakers to sell in the Canadian and European markets, which have shown a strong commitment to reducing the emissions of the transportation sector.
The deal itself is heartening. It is a clear case that Trump, and his administration are daily becoming outliers in a world that is coming to believe in the epochal threat of Earth’s warming and an increasing—if somewhat tardy—desire to rise to the challenge.
They made a deal. White House and congressional negotiators reached an accord on a two-year budget that would raise spending by $320 billion over existing caps. It also allows the government to keep borrowing.
If passed by Congress and signed by President Trump, the deal would stop a potential debt default this fall and avoid automatic spending cuts next fiscal year. The agreement would also bring clarity about government spending over the rest of Trump’s term, though Congress must still fill in the details, program by program. (New York Times)
Risky business. Moody’s Corporation has purchased a controlling stake in a firm that measures the physical risks of climate change, the latest indication that global warming can threaten the creditworthiness of governments and companies around the world.
The rating agency bought a majority share in Four Twenty Seven, a California-based company that measures a range of hazards, including extreme rainfall, hurricanes, heat stress, and sea-level rise, and tracks their impact on 2,000 companies and 196 countries. In the United States, the data covers 761 cities and more than 3,000 counties. (New York Times)
Almost unanimous. The scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming is likely to have passed 99 percent, according to the lead author of the most authoritative study on the subject and could rise further after separate research clears up some of the remaining doubts.
Three studies published in Nature and Nature Geoscience use extensive historical data to show there has never been a period in the last 2,000 years when temperature changes have been as fast and extensive as in recent decades.
It had previously been thought that similarly dramatic peaks and troughs might have occurred in the past, including in periods dubbed the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Climate Anomaly. However, the three studies use reconstructions based on 700 proxy records of temperature change, such as trees, ice, and sediment, from all continents that indicate none of these shifts took place in more than half the globe at any one time. (The Guardian)
Help needed. FERC is creating a new division to help review an increasing number of LNG applications. The Division of LNG Facility Review & Inspection will have 20 employees based in Washington DC, and another eight employees based in Houston — the U.S. energy hub — working out of a new regional office. (Daily Energy Insider)
It’s always good to have goals. The House Energy and Commerce Committee announced its goal to get the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with a plan to introduce a comprehensive climate package by the end of the year.
Democrats said the goal marks the beginning of a legislative process to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Few details were offered about how they would achieve the ambitious target.
Lawmakers, however, stressed that the process would be a unifying effort that complements the work of other committees and of supporters of the Green New Deal, the nonbinding resolution that calls for a 10-year economic mobilization to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
"I don't want to give you the impression that we're not trying to incorporate ideas that came from those who support the Green New Deal," Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) told reporters at a news conference. "What we're really trying to do here is come up with a united front that's driven by the scientific community."
The net-zero-by-2050 target comes from the most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which found that the world would have to hit that goal to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. (E&E News)
A load of crop. A report by the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service warns climate change could mean more years of brutal weather conditions that hamper farmers’ ability to plant crops. That could mean higher costs for federally subsidized crop insurance, the Wall Street Journal reports. “The report… found that if greenhouse gases are allowed to continue to increase, U.S. production of corn and soybeans — which are more susceptible to extreme heat during the growing season — could decline as much as 80 percent in the next 60 years,” per the report. “As a result, corn and soybean prices would skyrocket in that period, as would the cost of crop insurance. According to the study, the cost of crop insurance to the federal government could rise to $7.6 billion a year for corn and $3.3 billion for soybeans. By comparison, the USDA has spent roughly $300 million on insurance for the 2019 crop year as of July 15.” (Washington Post)
A sticky situation—what? A group of environmental activists superglued themselves to the walls of the U.S. Capitol tunnels to urge lawmakers to act on climate change. “Due to the climate emergency, Congress is shut down until sufficient action is taken to address the crisis,” read placards worn by some of the demonstrators organized by a group Extinction Rebellion. “We’re blocking this doorway because Congress isn’t taking the climate crisis seriously,” an activist said in a video posted by the group. Demonstrators said they wanted lawmakers to vote on legislation by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) that would declare a climate emergency. “Several Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Elijah E. Cummings (MD), thanked the demonstrators as they passed by, [group spokeswoman Kaela Bamberger] said. The offices of the three lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.” (Washington Post)
A taxing moment. A group of Democrats introduced another carbon fee-and-dividend bill amid a flurry of activity on the issue this week on Capitol Hill.
Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced the "Climate Action Rebate Act," which aims to reduce greenhouse gas pollution 55 percent over 2017 levels by 2030. Representative Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) introduced a companion in the House.
Representative Francis Rooney (R-FL) is also planning to float his own $30-per-ton tax on carbon, with revenues used to slash payroll taxes.
Rooney and Coons have endorsed various other carbon pricing proposals in the past, but their two new bills underscore the strategy for carbon pricing backers — to put as many proposals on the table as possible and see where Republicans will bite.
Coons said he's still looking for a Republican co-sponsor in the Senate and plans to introduce an amended version of the legislation if he finds one.
He's also been shopping for a GOP partner to reintroduce the Senate version of the "Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act," H.R. 763, the bipartisan legislation Rooney and Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL) have sponsored in the House with backing from Citizens' Climate Lobby and other centrist advocacy organizations.
The new legislation would put a fee on emissions starting at $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent, rising by $15 annually, or more if emissions reduction targets aren't hit.
Most of the revenue — 70 percent — would be distributed as a monthly dividend to households making less than $150,000 a year, while the remainder would be invested in developing clean energy technology and in infrastructure, including the Highway Trust Fund. (E&E News)
Capture and no release. A pair of proposals related to carbon capture technologies emerged today in the latest sign of Capitol Hill's interest in boosting an area seen as critical in the fight to reduce global carbon emissions.
The first measure, a bipartisan bill from Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), looks to strengthen Department of Energy research and development activities into the capture of emissions from industrial sources, like concrete and other manufacturing plants.
Some 30 percent of domestic emissions stem from industrial sources. The federal government's attention so far has been on research and development into power-sector and transportation technologies.
"Industrial sources are responsible for a stubbornly large share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.," Whitehouse said in a statement. "This legislation would unlock solutions to make American industrial companies more competitive internationally while reducing their carbon footprint."
At the forefront of the policy changes, the bill would direct the creation of a new DOE Industrial Emissions Reduction Technology Development Program.
The legislation would also direct DOE, in coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to establish a new advisory council to map out funding opportunities for developing technologies that could reduce emissions for industrial processes. (E&E News)
A low-down shame, indeed. A group of coal miners afflicted with black lung disease met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday as part of an effort to convince lawmakers to restore a higher excise tax on coal companies to help fund their medical care, but several said the meeting left them discouraged.
McConnell, the Republican leader who represents Kentucky, gave no assurances about the excise tax and left without answering questions or offering details, several of the miners who attended the meeting said.
“We rode up here for 10 hours by bus to get some answers from him because he represents our state,” said George Massey, a miner from Harlan County, Kentucky who spent two decades in the mines and is on disability. “For him to come in for just two minutes was a low-down shame.” (Reuters)
Can’t see a thing. Senators from both sides of the aisle are backing a bill to strengthen the public’s ability to obtain government records, seeking to counteract recent changes that make it easier for the Trump administration to withhold information.
The new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) bill introduced Tuesday directly challenges both an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy implemented earlier this year and a June Supreme Court ruling. (The Hill)
They don’t even listen to each other. EPA has allowed at least one small petroleum refinery to temporarily sidestep biofuel blending requirements. When the Energy Department didn't agree with that decision, Energy Secretary Rick Perry told Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
Grassley, the Senate's leading advocate for ethanol, released the letter he received from Perry yesterday.
Grassley, who has been critical of EPA for granting exemptions, seized on the letter as evidence that EPA ignores advice from DOE. The renewable fuel standard calls on EPA to consult with DOE on exemptions but gives EPA authority to make the decision. (E&E News)
If I were president. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) outlined what her administration would do to fight climate change. Her proposal measures up with many 2020 rivals, though she differs in some key areas on how to address rising emissions.
Gillibrand, like many other candidates, wants to neutralize nationwide carbon emissions by 2050. She also set a target to achieve net-zero electricity emissions within a decade. Her plan would tax and phase out fossil fuels while tightening regulations. Many of those efforts, e.g., closing the “Halliburton loophole,” which exempts fracking operations from drinking water standards, would require help from Congress. Gillibrand also wants to boost the green jobs sector with prevailing wages, union protections, and training to transition fossil fuel-dependent workers into emerging clean technology fields.
The Senator proposes to fund her plan with a $52 per metric ton carbon tax, spending the $200 billion of annual revenues on renewable energy, and a separate fossil fuel “excise tax” to generate $100 billion per year for projects to adapt to climate change. Like other candidates, she’d also end tax incentives for fossil fuel companies. (Politico)
Lawmakers pass water. The House passed legislation yesterday to require the Department of Energy to focus more research projects on water conservation.
The bill from House Science, Space and Technology Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) would encourage research into technologies that would minimize the use of water in energy production and encourage states and the federal government to cooperate in studying the "energy-water nexus."
Passing H.R. 34 has been a focus for Johnson since she took over as chairwoman earlier this year. The House cleared it by voice vote. (E&E News)
He flicked his what? Many science advocates and past leaders of EPA's expert advisory panels say the panoply of executive orders and guidances President Trump and his EPA admin-istrators have issued over the past 2 ½ years will dissolve as soon as a new president with a different philosophy enters the Oval Office. The types of actions ordered included sidelining critical scientists, changing how the benefits of rules are evaluated.
"All of these things collectively have been very damaging," said Christopher Frey, a former chair of EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) who served on its Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) until 2018. "But they've been done by a flick of the pen by the administrator, and another administrator could flick their pen and do away with that." (E&E News)
Plastics now portend a different kind of future. Nearly 300 environmental groups filed a legal petition urging EPA to ban the discharge of plastic pollution from industrial plants and update portions of the Clean Water Act to avoid future contamination.
The groups said EPA data shows petrochemical plants dumped 128 million pounds of pollutants into U.S. waterways in 2018. Of that, 77,859 pounds included some of the most toxic pollutants, like dioxin and benzene.
"It's appalling that the plastic industry is filling our waterways with plastic pellets and toxic chemicals under antiquated regulations," Julie Teel Simmonds, the Center for Biological Diversity attorney who authored the petition, said in a statement.
The petition argues EPA needs to update the Clean Water Act to protect water and public health better.
The petition urges EPA to make changes under the Clean Water Act that would stop plastic pellets and other plastic materials from being discharged in stormwater and wastewater, update the effluent limitations guidelines, and eliminate "toxic priority pollutants" at new facilities. (E&E News)
Sun of a beach. Water at a large swath of U.S. beaches is contaminated and could make swimmers sick, according to a study released today.
The study by Environment America Research and Policy Center and Frontier Group found nearly 60 percent of 4,523 beaches tested last year had unsafe pollution levels.
The study examined fecal bacteria levels at beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico.
Bacteria problems have become widespread. For example, all 19 beach sites sampled in Illinois exceeded EPA's safe limits for fecal bacteria. At a Cook County beach, bacteria levels were found to be at unsafe levels for 38 days.
Nationally, 2,620 beach sites exceeded the EPA margin of safety at least once last year, the study said. A total of 871 beaches had to be closed. (E&E News)
We need it. President Trump invoked a Korean War-era law to secure supplies of rare earth minerals that China has threatened to cut off in retribution for tariffs.
The White House issued a series of Defense Production Act determinations classifying various technologies made from the group of 17 obscure elements as "essential to the national defense."
China supplies 80 percent of the world's rare earth minerals and processes all the ore produced at the only American rare earth mine — the Mountain Pass project in California. In May, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a rare earth magnet factory, hinting it could be the next product affected by Trump's simmering trade war. (E&E News)
As you sue, so shall you reap. A federal judge ruled that a climate liability case can continue to be tried in Rhode Island, dealing a blow to the oil and gas companies that wanted the case heard in what could have been a friendlier-setting: federal court. “The ruling will allow Rhode Island prosecutors to continue to bring charges against 21 oil and gas producers including Chevron, Shell, and BP as the state tries to get the companies to help pay for damages caused by climate change.” (The Hill)
More days for the condor. The California condor — the largest flying bird in North America — is back from the brink of extinction. “In 1982, when just 22 California condors were left in the world, and the species’ obituary was being written in advance, scientists captured the remaining population to breed the scavenger birds in captivity,” The Washington Post’s Reis Thebault reports. “Nearly four decades later, a consortium of government agencies and nonprofit groups announced a miraculous milestone: 1,000 California condor chicks hatched since the official rescue program began.” (Washington Post)
You forgot the elephant in the room. The EPA announced that it signed a “memo of understanding” with a nonprofit conservative student group, called the American Conservation Coalition, to enhance environmental education in schools.
“EPA is proud to work alongside ACC to inspire the next generation of environmental leaders and advance solutions to today’s pressing environmental challenges,” EPA Administrator Wheeler said.
Although Coalition is visiting Capitol Hill this week to lobby Republicans to pursue legislation to address climate change, Wheeler failed to even mention climate change as a shared challenge in his statement. (Washington Examiner)
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Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.