The Energy 202: Trump could start his infrastructure push at Energy Department

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2017

President Donald Trump speaking on infrastructure at the Department of Transportation in June. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Trump has said that he wants to spend $1 trillion on rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, an investment in the nation’s public structures the size of which has not been seen since the construction of the interstate highway system.

Trump may be hard-pressed to get that tall sum from his fellow, penny-pinching Republicans in Congress. But he already has a pot of money sitting at the Energy Department that, some argue, can be used to finance energy infrastructure projects today without any additional congressional approval.

That is, if only he would use it.

The Energy Department’s loan program for innovative energy and auto manufacturing projects currently has $41 billion in existing spending authorityThat money waiting in the bank, advocates of the loan program argue, could today be put toward the construction of energy and transportation infrastructure projects of the sort Trump said on the campaign trail he wanted to build.

For example, the loan program has already financed a high-voltage transmission line in Nevada, a cutting-edge energy storage project in New York and advanced nuclear reactors in Georgia. The only catch is that the infrastructure its put toward must be deemed innovative.

“There’s been a lot of talk about $1 trillion. There’s a really huge open question about where it’s going to come from,” said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford and former head of the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) under President Clinton.

“I can point to close to 5 percent that’s already there on the books for energy infrastructure,” Reicher said.

But Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, who as a Freedom Caucus congressman opposed the loan program, have called for its cancellation in the president’s proposed budget.

Trump’s stance on the DOE loan program has been “concerning and oddly disconnected from the Trump administration’s rhetoric about wanting to generate American jobs and build out American infrastructure,” said Mike Carr, a former principal deputy assistant secretary at EERE under President Obama and a partner at the energy advisory firm Boundary Stone Partners. “It’s a very strange disconnect.”

Created by Congress in 2005 to finance innovative energy or auto-manufacturing projects, the loan program has a reputation still colored in the eyes of some conservatives by the most infamous of the firms to receive financing — Solyndra. That erstwhile solar-panel maker, which received $535 million in DOE money, went bankrupt in 2011 and became a knock on Obama the following year as he sought reelection.

But a few years later into Obama’s second term, the loan program was operating back in the black.

Despite the success of the program’s portfolio, opponents view the government financing as a distortion of the free flow of capital from private backers.

“The economic pain cuts deeper than wasted taxpayer money because government interventions distort free enterprise, create government dependence and allow Washington to direct the flow of private-sector investments,” Nicolas Loris, a fellow in energy and environmental policy at the Heritage Foundation, told Congress in March. “This is not a recipe for more innovation and economic growth.”

Carr represents a proposed $1.8 billion chemical plant in the state of Washington that is seeking a portion of the $8 billion in DOE financing set aside for fossil-fuel-related projects. Like the liquefied natural gas export terminals Trump recently trumpeted during his trip to Europe, the Kalama, Wash. project would export abroad some of the surplus of U.S. natural gas by converting it to methanol, a chemical building block used to make everything from furniture to pharmaceuticals.

What happens next: Right now, there is disagreement in Congress between key House and Senate Republicans. A first-stab budget bill that passed a House appropriations subcommittee would eliminate the loan program. But Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have recently put forward a comprehensive energy bill that would, among other things, tweak but preserve the loan program. That legislation is an update to the 2005 energy bill that originally created the loan program.

The big question mark: What Senate budget appropriators — in particular, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Energy Department’s budget — think about saving the loan program, which is just one of the many targets within the Energy Department in the Trump budget.


Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). (REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

— More on the Murkowski-Cantwell energy bill: Despite broad bipartisan support for an earlier version of the bill in Congress, some environmental groups are pushing back against a new version, introduced last month and fast-tracked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

“In light of the current administration’s overt efforts to make it easier for the fossil fuel industry to pollute our air and water, it is more essential than ever that Congress resist efforts to increase fossil fuel production,” read a letter to McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) from green groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity,, Food & Water Watch and Our Revolution.

The big sticking point: According to its detractors, the energy bill boosts the research and development of fossil-fuel energy sources at a time when the United States needs to wean itself off of oil, gas and coal in order to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Among other things, the bill would expedite the approval of liquefied natural-gas export terminals and expand research into methane hydrates, the groups say.

The letter to McConnell continues: “No energy legislation is better than bad energy legislation that serves to increase our dependence on dirty fossil fuel production instead of advancing energy efficiency to reduce the amount of energy we utilize and building on successful policies to expand clean energy sources such as solar and wind.”

— President Trump tapped the former Texas comptroller to serve as the assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior.  Susan Combs previously served as the agriculture commissioner, and had been under consideration to be Agriculture Secretary under Trump, The Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. (EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS)

The New York Times and ProPublica have a deep, thorough look at how political appointees across government agencies are tied to industry or, in some case, have potential conflicts of interest. The whole piece is worth reading, but here are a few excepts relevant to energy and environmental policy.

At the Interior Department:

“On a cloudy, humid day in March, Laura Peterson, a top lobbyist for Syngenta, arrived at the headquarters for the Interior Department. She looped the letter “L” across the agency’s sign-in sheet.

Her company, a top pesticide maker based in Switzerland, had spent eight years and millions of dollars lobbying the Obama administration on environmental rules, with limited success.

But Ms. Peterson had an in with the new administration.

Scott Cameron, newly installed at the Interior Department and a member of its deregulation team, had just left a nonprofit he founded. He had advocated getting pesticides approved and out to market faster. His group counted Syngenta as a financial partner.

The meeting with Ms. Peterson was one of the first Mr. Cameron took as a new government official.

Neither side would reveal what was discussed.”

And at the Energy Department:

“… a member of the deregulation team is Brian McCormack, who formerly handled political and external affairs for Edison Electric Institute, a trade association representing investor-owned electrical utilities.

While there, Mr. McCormack worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry-funded group. Both organizations fought against rooftop solar policies in statehouses across the country. Utility companies lose money when customers generate their own power, even more so when they are required to pay consumers who send surplus energy back into the grid.

Though the Energy Department does not directly regulate electrical utilities, it does help oversee international electricity trade, the promotion of renewable energy and the security of domestic energy production. After joining the department, Mr. McCormack helped start a review of the nation’s electrical grid, according to an agency memo.”


President Trump. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

— Should Trump care more about department store employees than coal miners? Strictly by the numbers, yes he should, The Post’s Phillip Bump argues

The coal industry has shed thousands of employees over the past few years, with the number of people working in the coal mining industry declining by more than 41 percent since Barack Obama took office in January 2008. (The overall mining and logging industry — which includes oil drilling — fared better, shedding only 6 percent of its jobs.) In terms of raw numbers, though, there’s another industry that has fared even worse. Compared to January 2009, there are 35,600 fewer coal miners. But over that period there are also 198,400 fewer department store employees.

— Just 100 companies produce more than 70 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the world since 1988, a new report has found. The Carbon Majors Report also found that more than half those emissions were from just 25 corporations, including ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, ConocoPhillips, BP and Chevron.


A file picture taken on August 29, 2011 shows the four reactors of the Bugey’s nuclear plant in Saint-Vulbas, 35 Kms east of Lyon, central eastern France. (JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images)

— France could close up to 17 nuclear reactors by 2025, the nation’s environment minister said on Monday. That’s about a third of the reactors they have now. Hulot said the decision to shutter reactors is in an effort to meet the goal of reducing the amount of electricity produced by nuclear power to 50 percent from 75 percent, Reuters reported.

The big question: What will the closures of nuclear power plants in France (and South Korea… and Germany…) mean for those nations’ prospects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting Paris goals?


— About that New York magazine story…: Social media was awash with reactions to a cover story in New York magazine about the dire consequences of climate change.

In “The Uninhabitable Earth,” David Wallace-Wells warned readers that “[i]f your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible.” He went on to describe in 7,300 words an apocalyptic, worst-case-scenario vision of Earth crippled by climate change-induced perpetual war and unbreathable air. The widely shared article sparked backlash among many climate communicators for its, in the words of The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, “unusually specific and severe depiction of what global warming will do to the planet.”

Andrew Freedman writes in Mashable that Wallace-Wells gets much of the science wrong:

The magazine cover story, entitled, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” takes the bleakest climate science projections and assumes the worst from there. It’s one of the darkest portrayals of our climate future that’s been written recently, at least from a nonfiction perspective. In several places, the story either exaggerates the evidence or gets the science flat-out wrong. This is unfortunate, because it detracts from a well-written, attention-grabbing piece. It’s still worth reading, but with a sharp critical eye.

Eric Holthaus writes in Grist that “scaring the sh** out of [people] is a really bad strategy” for getting them to want to address climate change:

The real problem is that time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically. Our brain’s limbic system is hard-wired to prioritize these kinds of threats, so we shift into fight-or-flight mode. And because the odds look stacked against us, most choose to flee. The real problem is that time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically.

The executive director of the California Academy of Sciences called the article “deeply irresponsible”:

Zach Labe, a PhD student in climate science at the University of California, Irvine, also criticized what he referred to as the “hyperboles” of the article:

Still, the article gained some political traction on the left. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, used it as a cudgel against his Republican colleagues:


Sea ice is seen from NASA’s Operation IceBridge research aircraft along the Upper Baffin Bay coast on March 27, 2017 above Greenland. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

— A new study provides more evidence for a somewhat controversial theory linking weather in the Arctic and North America. Chelsea Harvey reports for The Post:

The new study, just out Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience by a team of researchers from South Korea, China and the United States, finds that warmer-than-usual springtime temperatures in the Arctic Ocean are followed by colder-than-usual temperatures across much of North America, as well as a reduction in precipitation in some parts of the southern United States. And these conditions are also associated with a reduction in plant growth and development, in some cases even leading to reduced crop yields.

The theory: Warmth in the Arctic causes the jet stream to weaken and wobble, occasionally causing cold air from the “polar vortex” in the Arctic to pour into North America.

The controversy: Not every climate scientists buys into the idea that Arctic temperatures affect the jet stream.

Flashback: During one cold spell in 2014, John Holdren, President Obama’s top science adviser, appeared in a video to say “the kind of extreme cold being experienced by much of the United States as we speak, is a pattern that we can expect to see with increasing frequency as global warming continues” — an endorsement of the theory. A group of climate scientists responded by writing in an op-ed in the journal Science that while the idea “deserves a fair hearing”, they wrote, “to make it the centerpiece of the public discourse on global warming is inappropriate.”

On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will traverse the continental United States. It’ll be the first to traverse coast to coast in nearly a century.


Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

— Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) signed a law aimed at protecting climate scientists and researchers in the state from public records requests, the Associated Press reported. The law protects researchers at state institutions from having to disclose any preliminary drafts, notes and working papers, which are often requested from opponents of the research. The bill’s supporters hope the bill will help protect researchers from influence and intimidation by outside groups.

— When animals attack: The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. has two animal-attack stories to scare you from ever going outside:

In Florida, a beachgoer wasn’t able to scurry away from an estimated five-foot long shark as lifeguards blew whistles and waved their arms. The man was bitten on both legs, but made it out of the water for the lifeguards to call paramedics.

And in Denver, a teen camp counselor woke up to find his head was inside the mouth of a black bear. “It grabbed me like this and pulled me, and then it bit the back of my head and dragged me,” the teen said. “When it was dragging me, that was the slowest part. It felt like it went forever.” Other campers and staffers tried to scare the bear away. The bear dragged the teen 10 feet before he dropped him and walked from the scene.