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Washington Week: Wheeler to face US Senate on EPA nomination amid shutdown


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Washington Week: Wheeler to face US Senate on EPA nomination amid shutdown

Andrew Wheeler, the Trump administration's pick to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will appear Jan. 16 before U.S. Senate lawmakers as they consider his nomination.

The hearing will come just seven days after the White House nominated Wheeler as EPA administrator and as a partial government shutdown affecting the EPA heads toward a possible fifth week

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The Trump administration has tapped EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to officially lead the agency.

Source: Associated Press

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee members likely will ask Wheeler, who currently is the EPA's acting administrator, how the shutdown is affecting regulatory efforts at the agency, including work to unwind the Clean Power Plan and other environmental rules for the energy sector. The shutdown, which has suspended funding for about 25% of the federal government, began on Dec. 22, 2018, amid a fight over money for President Donald Trump's proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

The funding lapse has forced the EPA and U.S. Department of Interior to restrict activities to a narrow list of exempted duties. The U.S. House of Representatives passed stand-alone legislation Jan. 11 to reopen the EPA and Interior, but the White House said moving separate appropriations bills without an agreement on border security was "unacceptable."

Ahead of Wheeler's nomination hearing, Democratic committee leaders questioned him on the use of furloughed EPA workers and other agency resources to prepare for his Senate appearance. The Democratic lawmakers were concerned that the EPA may be violating both its contingency plan and federal law in preparing Wheeler during the shutdown. But the EPA's top lawyer said hearing preparation was "clearly excepted" from the duties that agency personnel cannot perform at this time.

In addition to shutdown activities, lawmakers also could grill Wheeler on his contact with industry groups on important rulemakings and whether the agency has addressed alleged ethics problems with former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who stepped down as head of the agency in early July 2018.

Groups pressure House on Green New Deal

Over 600 environmental groups wrote to House members on Jan. 10 urging the lawmakers to consider the principles behind the "Green New Deal" as they craft climate change and energy legislation for the new U.S. Congress.

The Green New Deal, whose proponents include new U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., calls for a transition to 100% renewable energy and the building of a national, energy-efficient "smart" grid. Despite the long odds of a Green New Deal-inspired bill's passage in the Senate, advocates are pressuring the Democrat-controlled House to pursue the plan's goals.

The Jan. 10 letter requested legislation to halt all fossil fuel leasing and extraction and end subsidies and other tax break for "dirty energy." The environmental groups also called for all U.S. electricity generation to come from renewable resources "by 2035 or earlier."

That timeline would be extremely challenging to meet, with roughly 80% of the country's power currently coming from coal, natural gas and nuclear energy.

FERC to meet

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will hold its next monthly open meeting on Jan. 17. The meeting will be FERC's first since former Chairman Kevin McIntyre passed away Jan. 2 and only the second with new Commissioner Bernard McNamee.

The agenda for that meeting is relatively light but includes a handful of electric items, including a complaint from the East Texas Electric Cooperative Inc. against several American Electric Power Co. Inc. subsidiaries regarding transmission return on equity (FERC docket EL18-199).

The commission also will address a proceeding involving cost recovery, return on equity and other issues for the abandoned Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline, or PATH, project. The PATH project, a joint venture between AEP and Allegheny Energy Inc., now part of FirstEnergy Corp., was to have consisted of a roughly 275-mile, 765-kV transmission project that would have run mainly across West Virginia and a portion of Northern Virginia to Frederick County, Md. (FERC dockets ER09-1256-004 and ER12-2708-006).

Oil, business groups seek relief from trade war, tariffs

Ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China are hurting U.S. businesses and energy export prospects, two key trade groups argued last week.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue delivered the group's State of American Business address Jan. 10 at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Although the chamber supported the Trump administration's efforts to address China's theft of intellectual property and other trade and industrial policies the U.S. views as unfair, Donohue stressed that the group does not want a trade war waged through mounting tariffs.

"Let me be very clear," he said. "Tariffs are taxes paid for by American families and American businesses — not foreigners."

Donohue also urged the administration to follow through on repeated promises to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico now that the two countries and the U.S. have agreed to a new North American trade deal.

American Petroleum Institute CEO Mike Sommers made similar comments Jan. 8 at the API's annual State of American Energy event. "We want retaliatory tariffs to end and not expand," Sommers said. "Let's settle this trade dispute quickly."

He also called steel and aluminum import tariffs a "major issue" for API's members that has slowed down and even halted some pipeline projects.

But Sommers appeared optimistic that the U.S. and China will reach an agreement to head off a potential March 2 hike in tariffs on U.S LNG exports, saying he was "hopeful we can get a deal soon."

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US Congress
Jan. 16

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on Andrew Wheeler's nomination to be U.S. EPA administrator.

Jan. 16

The Senate Committee on Appropriations' Energy and Water Development Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the future of nuclear power, focusing on advanced reactors.

Federal agencies
Jan. 17

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will hold its monthly meeting.

Industry events

Jan. 17

The Bipartisan Policy Center will host a discussion at its Washington, D.C., office on the government's role in energy innovation. Energy Secretary Rick Perry will deliver the opening remarks, with Southern Co. President and CEO Tom Fanning and Royal Dutch Shell PLC Chairman Chad Holliday to speak on the panel.

Jan. 17

The Business Network for Offshore Wind, Marine Log, and Winston & Strawn LLP will hold the first of a three-part series of discussions on the regulatory issues affecting the construction and financing of offshore wind projects in the U.S. The first talk will focus on the U.S. Coast Guard's role during the implementation phase of offshore projects.

Notable stories from last week

FERC's McNamee gets conditional OK to work on US grid resilience docket

Report estimates US CO2 emissions grew 3.4% in 2018, reversing recent decline

As FERC chief, McIntyre kept agency close to tradition, engaged with critics

Momentum on PURPA reform may slow in new US Congress

Coal plant retirements in 2018 more than double 2017's total