A window on the climate
— President Donald Trump and Joe Biden used their final debate stage moments to spar over climate and energy policy, hitting on everything from environmental justice, economics, window size and a transition away from oil.
— The Trump administration has significantly altered EPA’s ability to conduct and use science — changes that could hinder efforts under a potential Biden administration to more aggressively regulate pollutants.
— The State Department plans to pressure the French government to approve a potential $7 billion deal between a U.S. LNG supplier and a French trading firm, after the government blocked the deal over concerns that U.S. shale gas was too dirty.
HAPPY FRIDAY! I’m your host, Kelsey Tamborrino. Duke Energy’s Dawn Santoianni got the trivia win for knowing that Republican candidate Ronald Reagan during a 1980 debate posed a now-famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” For today: Which U.S. national park is 95 percent water? Send your tips, energy gossip and comments to email@example.com.
A WINDOW INTO LAST NIGHT’S DEBATE: The deep divide between Trump and Biden on climate and energy policy is not new to any reader of this newsletter — Trump has stuck to oil and gas while Biden has touted his plan’s transition the country to cleaner energy sources. And as usual, the issue was relegated to the final portion of last night’s presidential debate. Here’s what you need to know from each candidate:
The Trump pitch: Trump kept up his persistent message of economics and U.S. energy dominance, and tried to shift the focus back to China’s “filthy” emissions and his contention that Biden wants to ban fracking. The president reiterated recent campaign trail lines: “We have the cleanest air, the cleanest water” — although that ignores contributions made by the Obama administration — while touting the One Trillion Trees Initiative, a global initiative aimed at planting one trillion trees by 2050. “We have the best, lowest number in carbon emissions, which is a big standard that I notice Obama goes with all the time. Not Joe,” Trump said, minutes before he prefaced a statement with “if you’re a believer in carbon emission.” Trump also took aim at Biden’s plan, calling it the product of “AOC plus 3,” who “know nothing about the climate.”
The Biden pitch: Biden similarly stuck to his tried and true arguments, citing science and a moral obligation to do something about global warming. “We’re told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time. We’re going to pass the point of no return within the next eight to 10 years,” Biden said. “Four more years of this man eliminating all the regulations that were put in by us to clean up the climate, to clean up, to limit the emissions will put us in a position where we’re going to be in real trouble.” He reiterated his favorite line, that his climate plan will create millions of “good-paying jobs” (more on that below), while going through the greatest hits of his clean energy plan (think 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations and retrofitting buildings and homes).
What caught ME’s attention: As Pro’s Zack Colman and Ben Lefebvre report, Trump accused Biden of seeking to kill the oil and gas industry. “Basically what he’s saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma? Ohio?” Trump said, after Biden repeated that he had no plan to ban fracking, and that his plan would transition the country away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources. “I would transition from the oil industry,” Biden said. “Oh. There’s a big statement,” Trump replied.
The oddest part of the exchange centered on energy efficiency measures pushed by Biden, which prompted Trump to accuse him of a war on windows: “When he says buildings, they want to take buildings down because they want to make bigger windows into smaller windows,” Trump said. “As far as they’re concerned, if you had no window, it would be a lovely thing. This is the craziest plan that anybody has ever seen.” Trump has employed this remark before, prompting the Sunrise Movement to make clear that “tiny windows” aren’t mentioned in the Green New Deal. (A quick look by ME at the resolution also shows “windows” in general are never mentioned.)
Trump on environmental justice: The president was asked about deregulation in the context of the communities of color that are more likely to live near chemical plants and oil refineries. “The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily and they’re making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made,” Trump said. Biden responded saying, “The fact is, those front-line communities, it doesn’t matter what you’re paying them, it matters how you keep them safe.”
STARING DOWN THE SCIENCE: If Biden wins the presidency in 11 days, he’ll inherit an EPA whose scientific backbone has corroded under the Trump administration, which oversaw sharp funding declines for research and a mass exodus among bureaucrats and science staff, Pro’s Annie Snider reports this morning. Left unaddressed, policy experts say the Trump-led changes to EPA’s scientific infrastructure could hinder efforts to tackle health risks from air and water pollution as well as toxic chemicals in consumer products.
A Biden administration will almost certainly want to turn back many of the changes — but it won’t be easy, considering their breadth and complexity, and the political pressure to act quickly on the regulations themselves, rather than the science that underpins them.
“The new administration will have to prioritize and there are so many challenges,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who wrote a book about industry’s success in sowing doubt about the harms from tobacco, fossil fuels and other products.
Environmental advocates argue some of the Trump administration’s science changes could be swiftly reversed. For instance, EPA says it is aiming to finalize its deeply contentious scientific transparency rule before the end of the year, placing it well within the window that allows Congress to use expedited procedures under the Congressional Review Act to overturn it if Democrats take the Senate in November. But some of the rule’s central ideas have already been embedded in other parts of the bureaucracy.
Other policy changes are more complicated, like key panels of external scientific advisers shifting away from their traditional emphasis on academic researchers to include more members from industry and consulting firms. External advisers typically serve for multi-year terms, meaning they stand to influence EPA policy for years to come.
“Fixing the [Scientific Advisory Board] will be order №1,” said Chris Zarba, who served as EPA’s staff director for the board before retiring in 2018.
STATE TO STEP IN ON ENGIE DEAL: Two people with direct knowledge tell Pro’s Ben Lefebvre that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to intervene to pressure the French government to approve a $7 billion deal between a U.S. LNG supplier and French trading house Engie, one day after POLITICO reported that the French government stepped in front of the deal over concerns that U.S. shale gas was too dirty. The U.S. response, which one person close to Pompeo’s office said would be led by Pompeo himself, would ratchet up the profile of a possible business deal between Engie in France and NextDecade Energy in the United States.
Several sources on both sides of the Atlantic said the French government’s concern was mainly the life cycle methane content of U.S. natural gas flowing out of West Texas and New Mexico, the region where NextDecade would obtain the gas to be exported.
The Energy Department blasted that reasoning, saying U.S. gas exports have helped reduce carbon emissions in countries that had been using coal or oil to generate electricity. Spokesperson Jessica Szymanski did not answer questions about whether the department, which has taken a hand in promoting U.S. LNG projects, would get involved. “It is short-sighted and narrow-minded to delay LNG projects for political posturing and hinder the environmental progress we’ve made using American natural gas, especially if countries like France hope to meet their own climate goals,” Szymanski said in a statement to POLITICO.
NEW SOURCE REVIEW, WHO THIS? EPA finalized a rule Thursday that will make it easier for power plants and others that emit Clean Air Act pollutants to avoid the costly process of applying for new federal permits when they make major upgrades, Pro’s Eric Wolff reports. The final rule would allow companies to use “project emissions accounting” in the first of two steps needed to determine if New Source Review is triggered under the law.
PUBLIC LANDS IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Squabbles over public lands are playing a prominent role in Senate contests in Montana and Colorado, two of the most-watched contests this cycle. In Colorado, incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardnerhas cited his work to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, H.R. 1957 (116), inmultiple ads in an attempt to bolster his environmental record and bipartisan credentials. But his challenger, former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, has hit back with spots knocking Gardner for voting against climate action and not helping pass a Colorado-specific conservation bill. All recent public polling puts Hickenlooper well ahead and the top Democratic Senate super PAC pulled out of the race last week, projecting confidence about his prospects.
Over in Montana, the battle over William Perry Pendley’s tenure at the Bureau of Land Management has persisted in the race between Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. An ad from Bullock featured his efforts fighting Pendley and the governor vowed to keep “our public lands in Montanans’ hands.” Daines ran his own ad playing up his efforts to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, but he has remained quiet on Pendley’s sticking around at BLM despite a federal court order — in response to a lawsuit from Bullock — finding his tenure there illegal. Nearly all recent polling of the contest has it neck-and-neck with the Cook Political Report deeming it a tossup.
The issue may also factor into Montana’s open governor and House contests. And it’s a factor in Colorado’s 3rd district, where Republican Lauren Boebert’s primary upset has led Democrats and environmental groups to see an opening for Diane Mitsch Bush (the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund recently began a $500,000 campaign against Boebert). Polling from the Center for Western Priorities in June found 81 percent of likely voters across Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Nevada said public lands issues would be very important to them.
BY THE NUMBERS: Clean energy jobs paid 25 percent more than the national median wage in 2019, according to new analysis Thursday from Environmental Entrepreneurs, the American Council on Renewable Energy, and the Clean Energy Leadership Institute. Workers in the sector earned a median hourly wage of $23.89 in 2019 compared with the national median wage of $19.14, according to the report, prepared by BW Research Partnership.
The analysis found that clean energy jobs were also more likely to be unionized and include health care and retirement benefits. The overall clean energy industry saw a 9 percent unionization rate last year — 3 percent above the U.S. average rate, though the report said the rate varies by occupation. The highest unionization rate — 12 percent — was seen in grid modernization and storage.
The report comes as Biden has repeatedly pitched his clean energy plan as one that will create “good-paying” union jobs. According to the report, clean energy jobs were comparable with jobs in fossil fuels. Solar and wind paid about $24.85 an hour, while energy efficiency saw a median hourly, salary of about $24.44. Median wages for fossil fuel extraction jobs in coal, gas and petroleum — including mining, fracking and drilling — were about $24.37 per hour last year, the report said, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Just desserts: As POLITICO Magazine’s Michael Grunwald writes, Biden’s clean power plans would require the closure of most coal and gas plants within 15 years, and it’s ultimately incompatible with most fracking operations even though he opposes an outright fracking ban. But Biden isn’t making up the economic opportunities inherent in a clean-energy transition; Trump’s Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that America’s fastest-growing job in the 2020s will be wind-turbine technician, and that solar-installer will be the third-fastest.
ME FIRST — BIPARTISAN BILL TO EXTEND DISTRIBUTED WIND CREDIT: Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) will introduce a bill today to extend the small wind investment tax credit. The Rural Wind Energy Modernization and Extension Act would nix the existing 100-kilowatt nameplate limitation for small wind systems and expand the maximum wind turbine size to 10 megawatts. The measure — meant to help offset the up-front costs of owning a distributed wind turbine — would also change the definition of small wind to “distributed wind energy property” and extend the investment tax credit for five years.
“Federal policy to promote deployment of distributed wind has failed to keep up,” Blumenauer said in a statement to ME. “Our new bipartisan legislation will provide stability and certainty for the distributed wind market and unlock the necessary investment to grow our global leadership role in distributed wind power, while helping Americans take advantage of clean, renewable, affordable power.”
GONE WITH THE WIND: Conservative groups, led by the American Energy Alliance, called on Senate Republicans to end the Production Tax Credit for wind energy in a letter Thursday, calling it “an important energy policy course correction.”
CUT THE CAMERAS: Shortly after Trump’s comments in California last monthdismissing the role that rising temperatures have played in the state’s worsening fire season, the president conceded to Gov. Gavin Newsom that climate change probably had a significant role in driving the historic wildfires, POLITICO’s Jeremy B. White reports. The president, there for a briefing on the fires, sparred with the state’s natural resources chief over his denial, telling him: “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
But the president subsequently told Newsom that climate change’s rolein the fires was “probably like 50–50” along with forest management, according to a source familiar with the exchange who was not permitted to speak on the record. The New York Times was first to report on the comments.