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DOE, other US agencies embrace 'social distancing' to weather coronavirus

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DOE, other US agencies embrace 'social distancing' to weather coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing U.S. federal agencies focused on energy to maximize the number of employees working remotely, including staff at national labs run by the U.S. Department of Energy. However, agency representatives stressed that the modified work plans should not deter them from upholding agency missions.

In an emailed statement, the DOE said it "will practice 'social distancing' and transition to maximum telework flexibilities for employees across the DOE enterprise," including the agency's headquarters, national labs and other sites across the country. Among other things, the DOE conducts federal research on energy technologies, helps coordinate emergency response efforts for the energy sector, and authorizes LNG and crude exports.

"Protecting our workforce from the spread of this virus is the Secretary's top priority," the DOE said. "Together, we will ensure the mission of the Department continues while protecting our greatest asset, the men and women who serve at the DOE."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission encouraged staff to begin teleworking starting March 16 until further notice, with no visitors allowed at FERC's Washington, D.C., headquarters unless cleared for entry by the Office of Executive Director. The commission also canceled its next monthly meeting, which had been set for March 19, to "help mitigate or slow the transmission of the coronavirus," FERC announced March 13.

FERC, however, plans to issue notional orders on all matters it was scheduled to address at its March meeting. The agency has also not announced any change to its March 18 deadline for the PJM Interconnection grid operator to submit its filing to comply with FERC's December 2019 order aimed at mitigating the impact of state-subsidized resources on PJM's capacity market.

Taking a similar approach to the DOE and FERC, the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the leasing of federal areas for energy production, is following public health guidance from the White House, Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, and state and local authorities.

"Interior and its bureaus, including [the Bureau of Land Management] and [the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management], have taken measures to maximize telework flexibility, implement staggered work schedules and use social distancing and other mitigations where appropriate to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while continuing mission-essential operations," an Interior spokesperson told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Despite the Interior's plans to stick to essential operations, some conservation and public lands advocacy groups are calling on Interior to temporarily halt major policy actions to give the public more time to weigh in amid coronavirus-related quarantines and social distancing. The ongoing rulemakings include those that would govern oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and eliminate industry liability for killing migratory birds.

"The Interior Department should immediately suspend ongoing public comment periods, halt upcoming oil and gas lease sales, and delay new policy proposals," said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities. "Americans should be focused on protecting the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families, not fighting back more attempts to weaken protections for public lands and wildlife."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has authorized voluntary unscheduled leave and telework for all its employees nationally and is encouraging those able to telework to do so rather than come into the office. "EPA will continue our work to protect human health and the environment and as we all work through this evolving pandemic, we are confident that we will continue to deliver the same quality of work in a timely manner for the American public," an EPA spokesperson said.

But following a March 17 all-hands call, an EPA employee who asked not to be identified said staff is currently having trouble signing on to the agency's virtual private network service because so many people are attempting to log in at once.

Turning to Congress, the U.S. Senate is in session the week of March 16 as it mulls changes to a coronavirus relief package that the U.S. House of Representatives passed on March 14 before going on a one-week state work period. The Senate could modify the House bill to include federal aid for the energy sector or propose such relief measures in future legislation to address the global coronavirus outbreak.

Even if Congress seeks to help the energy sector using coronavirus legislation, lawmakers are delaying action on other near-term energy priorities. On March 16, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis announced it will postpone the release of climate policy recommendations that the panel had planned to issue in late March.

The timing is also unclear for when the Senate may resume consideration of a sprawling clean energy bill introduced in late February. The Senate failed to invoke cloture on the bill due to disagreements on whether to include language to phase down hydrofluorocarbons. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed a motion to reconsider cloture on a separate bill meant to serve as a legislative vehicle for the energy package, but Congress' focus on the coronavirus has put the matter aside for now.