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If US House flips, top Democrat ready to probe Interior energy, science policies

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If Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, its Committee on Natural Resources would scrutinize the Trump administration's push to expand access to federal lands and waters for energy production, including related impacts on climate change, the panel's ranking member said in a recent interview.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., told S&P Global Market Intelligence that a Democrat-controlled House resources committee could also consider changes to a federal law aimed at helping Puerto Rico restructure its debt and expedite critical infrastructure projects.

"One of the priorities is the reinstatement of science and facts as part of our decision-making," Grijalva said. "I would like to look at the effects of climate change on wildfires, hurricanes, sea-level rise drought, fisheries."

In terms of energy, one of the main divides between Democrats and Republicans has been the GOP's efforts to roll back existing climate regulations and remove barriers to fossil fuel production from federal lands and waters.

The Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era policy that prevented the U.S. Department of Interior from issuing new leases for coal production on federal lands until the agency studied the program's climate change impacts. The Interior under Trump has also pushed to open more offshore areas to oil and gas drilling.

Those policies could be the subject of heavy oversight from the House Natural Resources Committee if Democrats manage to win control of the House in this November's midterm elections, according to Grijalva. Democrats are in a strong position to do just that.

"It's not an open-ended question, where you just assume there are no consequences [to these policies] and you take somebody's word for it," the lawmaker said. "It's not about trust, it's about verifying. And I think those are the oversight responsibilities that we have as a committee."

On Oct. 11, Grijalva joined other committee Democrats in sending a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke regarding a recent secretarial order they worried could suppress scientific information "not aligned with this administration's agenda." The order, entitled "Promoting Open Science," would require any scientific data that Interior uses in its decision-making to be made public, mirroring a similar science transparency proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The order would also allow the Interior deputy secretary to decide what information must be kept confidential and the open science requirements that can be waived to prevent the release of business information and trade secrets. In their letter, the Democratic lawmakers said they were "skeptical that this waiver provision is anything but another layer of protection for the fossil-fuel industry at the expense of scientific integrity."

Interior's open science policy and past actions under Zinke to remove mention of climate change from the Interior department's websites, press releases and reports could be the subject of oversight from a Democrat-controlled House Natural Resources Committee.

Zinke himself is already the subject of two Interior inspector general investigations, although NBC News reported the White House is replacing the agency's top watchdog with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official who worked for President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

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House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
Source: AP

In addition to oversight, Democrats could try to "reverse legislatively" some of the Trump administration's decisions to open up more areas for coal extraction and other energy production, according to Grijalva. Doing so would be difficult given an anticipated continued GOP majority in the Senate and with Trump in the White House, meaning Democrats would need to focus on other, more bipartisan bills.

"There [are] bills by Democrats having to do [with] energy... that have not seen the light of day," he said.

In May 2017, Democrats from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and House Natural Resources Committee collaborated on a bill called the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow's America Act. The legislation would set aside more than $17 billion for energy-related initiatives, including grid modernization, pipeline replacement and a federally owned strategic transformer reserve.

In November 2017, Grijalva joined 16 other Democrats in proposing a comprehensive energy reform bill that would raise onshore royalty rates for new oil, gas and coal leases on public lands and increase the minimum bid amount and rental rates for onshore oil and gas production in federal areas. The bill, entitled the Sustainable Energy Development Reform Act, would also require royalties to be paid on all gas that is vented, flared or lost through leakage and reinstate Interior's Stream Protection Rule applying to coal producers.

The GOP-controlled Congress voted to rescind the Stream Protection Rule shortly after President Donald Trump took office. The rule would have effectively barred approval of new mines if they resulted in "material damage" to the hydrologic balance of waters outside the permitted mining area and required additional water quality monitoring and restoration requirements.

Puerto Rico grid

The House Natural Resources Committee has jurisdiction over U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, which was battered in September 2017 by two massive hurricanes that disabled much of the island's electric grid. The bulk of Puerto Rico's power system is owned by public utility the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which was beset by substantial debt and management issues ahead of the storms.

Grijalva said Democrats have a "real interest" in revisiting the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, a federal law established in 2016 to create more oversight of the island's finances and a process for restructuring its debt. PROMESA also created expedited procedures for approving critical infrastructure projects, included any needed grid repairs.

The law was meant to have a stabilizing economic and financial effect on the island, but concerns have grown that PROMESA "might not be the vehicle" for doing that, according to Grijalva.

"The firewalls that you need to put around PREPA in terms of its management, its direction, I think are critical," he said. But Grijalva dismissed reports that lawmakers in Congress are weighing legislation to federalize Puerto Rico's grid, calling such talk "kind of rumor."