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Washington Week: New US Congress to convene; power sector absorbs MATS finding

The 116th U.S. Congress will convene for the first time on Jan. 3, ushering in an increased focus on climate change from the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives that could have implications for the energy industry.

In the run up to the new Congress, House Democrats have announced plans to hold several hearings on climate change and sought documents and other information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the Trump administration's efforts to repeal climate regulations, including the Clean Power Plan and methane emission standards for oil and gas producers.

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U.S. House Speaker-Designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Source: Associated Press

More recently, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi appointed U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., to lead the House's new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which will focus on the impacts of global warming and ways to address the issue.

But the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate is unlikely to pass more aggressive climate legislation, including bills that would put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, President Donald Trump has made undoing existing climate rules one of his key energy-related priorities, making him an unlikely ally to House Democrats seeking to shift the U.S. away from fossil fuels.

Before the House can tackle climate change, however, lawmakers must focus on ending a partial government shutdown that began Dec. 21, 2018, amid a partisan clash over funding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. Senate will reconvene Jan. 2 after the Christmas holiday break and resume consideration of a continuing resolution to provide further funds for the EPA, U.S. Department of the Interior and other agencies affected by the shutdown.

But chances are high that the shutdown will extend into the new Congress and take priority over other policy issues. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency had sufficient carryover funds to continue operations during the week of Dec. 24-28, 2018. But if Congress did not pass further appropriations by midnight on Dec. 28, 2018, Wheeler said the EPA would begin "orderly shutdown procedures" that will curtail most of the agency's work.

The shutdown has also slowed down or halted most of the Interior Department's permitting activities for energy development in federal areas. But the U.S. Department of Energy and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are unaffected, with Congress already approving fiscal year 2019 spending for those agencies.

EPA issues revised MATS finding

Before the start of its shutdown, the EPA on Dec. 27, 2018, proposed a revised cost finding for its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, for coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Although the EPA did not propose changing its final MATS rule promulgated in 2012, the new finding could alter EPA rule-makings in the future by largely excluding consideration of a regulation's "co-benefits," including a decline in other pollutants. After excluding consideration of the MATS rule's co-benefits, the EPA said the standards' costs far exceeded the benefits, meaning that regulating hazardous air pollutants from power plants under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act is not "appropriate and necessary."

The EPA will take comment on its proposal for 60 days, and environmental groups are already lining up to oppose it.

"The dangerous proposed change to calculating the costs and benefits of proposed safeguards could mean the EPA would ignore the health benefits to the public from breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water, such as reduced health care costs, while prioritizing the costs to polluters to curb their own pollution," the Sierra Club said.

Generators were required to comply with the MATS rule by 2016, although some facilities received one-year extensions. The power industry has pleaded with the EPA not to change the standards, which utilities have already complied with and spent over $18 billion to implement.

Zinke exits Interior

After nearly two years on the job, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stepped down as head of the agency on Jan. 2. But Interior has yet to name a temporary successor for Zinke, nor has the White House nominated someone new to lead the department.

On Dec. 28, 2018, Interior spokesperson Heather Swift said the agency was unable to answer questions unrelated to the lapse in appropriations from the shutdown.

Trump announced Zinke's planned resignation on Dec. 15, 2018. The decision came amid a series of investigations into the Interior secretary's travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest. Although the Trump administration has yet to announce a successor for Zinke, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt appeared at a Jan. 2 cabinet meeting with Trump at the White House.

Like Zinke, Bernhardt is expected to push for less restrictions on energy production from federal lands and waters. While serving as deputy secretary, he has backed Zinke's efforts to open up more of the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas drilling and proposed to replace the Obama administration's sage grouse protections in a way that could allow more energy development on Western lands.

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US Congress

Jan. 3

The 116th U.S. Congress will convene.

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