Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows

HOOBOY WHAT A LETTER: The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent watchdog criticized agency head Andrew Wheeler for his resistance to addressing his chief of staff’s refusal to cooperate with investigations.

A letter released Wednesday from EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) outlines multiple instances in which Ryan Jackson, Wheeler’s chief of staff, refused to turn over documents or answer questions as the watchdog investigated how EPA officials obtained advance copies of outside testimony designated for lawmakers.

“The particularly serious or flagrant problem I am reporting concerns two instances of refusal to fully cooperate and provide information to the [inspector general], one during an audit and one during an administrative investigation. They center on a single employee — Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson,” wrote acting Inspector General Charles Sheehan in an Oct. 29 letter that was released Wednesday. 

The “Seven Day Letter,” a term used to describe the process used to notify Congress of serious roadblocks to investigations, outlines both the ways Jackson tried to sideline investigators, as well as Sheehan’s repeated attempts to discuss the matter with Wheeler.

“Mr. Jackson’s cooperation has been patiently sought multiple times over protracted periods by OIG auditors and investigators. Auditors asked of him merely a brief email reply. Investigators requested to interview him. Both matters, after Mr. Jackson’s repeated delays and refusals, were elevated, in writing, to you and/or other senior agency leaders in a final hope for cooperation,” Sheehan writes.

But his pleas for Jackson to fully cooperate were met with silence by Wheeler, who did not respond to requests from Sheehan for a week. 

“Since October 21, 2019, neither you nor any agency official has contacted OIG on this urgent matter,” Sheehan writes, contrasting Wheeler’s lack of response with a memo the agency head wrote in 2018 telling employees “it is imperative and expected” that they respond to OIG requests.  

The EPA defended its coordination with the OIG. “EPA has responded appropriately to the Office of Inspector General request for assistance as it relates to its Seven Day Letter. The Acting Inspector General’s decision to continue with the Seven Day Letter is troubling in light of the assistance the agency provided and undermines the cooperative and iterative relationship that EPA has shared with its OIG,” the agency said in response to The Hill. 

But emails laid out from the OIG paint a different picture. The investigation centered on a request from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that feared the EPA received advanced copies of some witness testimony, a move that could be considered interfering with or intimidating individuals who testify before Congress.

Jackson admitted to receiving a copy but would not say where he got it.

“Will I say where I got it from? No,” he said in an Oct 3 interview.

Read more about the watchdog letter here


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MAY GIVE YOU SECOND THOUGHT ABOUT MAUI BEACHES: The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared divided over how to deal with polluted waters that flow indirectly into rivers and oceans that are regulated by the federal government as the justices heard oral arguments in a major case over the Clean Water Act.

At issue in the case is whether Maui County in Hawaii violated the Clean Water Act by injecting wastewater underground that then seeped into the Pacific Ocean.

High stakes: If the court finds the law applies to pollution that reaches national waters indirectly, after mixing with local groundwater, it could dramatically expand the federal government’s regulatory reach. A narrower interpretation of the Clean Water Act’s scope, on the other hand, would trim the edges of the landmark 1972 environmental law.

Background: The case started in the spring of 2012, when four Hawaii environmental groups sued Maui County to stop a municipal water treatment plant from pouring millions of gallons of wastewater each day into wells running hundreds of feet deep, where the treated sewage combined with groundwater.

A study showed some of the wastewater later surfaced at popular beach areas, and the environmental groups said pollutants contained in the discharge had interfered with nearby coral reef and triggered invasive algae to bloom. They argued the county was operating in this way without a federal permit, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the environmental groups. The court found the Clean Water Act applied to so-called point sources, which includes discharge pipes, even if a pipe does not pump treated sewage directly into national waters.

At the high court: The Trump administration has also filed briefs in support of Maui and also joined in Wednesday’s oral arguments.

Both Lin and U.S. deputy solicitor general Malcolm Stewart argued the polluted water in question should be considered to have originated from a large diffuse area, known under the law as a “nonpoint source,” rather than from any specific set of pipes. Nonpoint sources generally are the responsibility of a state government, rather than the federal government, to regulate.

Some justices expressed concerns that this argument could provide a blueprint for polluters to avoid federal regulation by aiming a discharge pipe into the ground, even if it were in close proximity to national waters.

“You’ve just provided a road map,” Justice Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee, told the deputy solicitor general. “You know, put your pipe underground.”

Read more about today’s hearing here.


GROWING, GROWING GONE: The Senate’s bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus is already growing with the addition of six new members announced on Wednesday.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Angus King (I-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) will join the caucus formed by Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) last month.

“I believe climate change is real. I also believe that we as Americans have the ability to come up with climate change solutions that can benefit our economy and our way of life,” Graham said in a statement. “The United States has long been a leader in innovation. Addressing climate change is an opportunity to put our knowledge and can-do spirit to work to protect the environment for our benefit today and for future generations.”

The group said members want to craft “legislation that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions using market-based approaches that are durable, equitable, and supportive of the American economy.”

Read more about the caucus here.


EMINENTLY QUOTABLE: “We’re definitely looking into it,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said, when asked by reporters whether he plans to sponsor a bill to limit mining near the Grand Canyon.

Last week the House passed a bill that would ban mining near the Grand Canyon, a move designed to counter any efforts by the Trump administration to bolster the uranium industry by mining on federal lands. Despite the success of the bill in the House, it’s yet to find a sponsor for companion legislation in the Senate. 



On Thursday, Energy and Natural Resources will hold a hearing on a bill examining royalties and another that looks to boost renewable energy development on public lands. 



Air Pollution Turned India’s Capital Into a ‘Climate Emergency, Time reports.

Some Wonder if Electric Microgrids Could Light the Way in California, Stateline reports. 

Italy to require students to study climate change and sustainability, we report


ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday…

EPA watchdog slams agency head as his chief of staff refuses to comply with investigations

Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act

Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows by six members

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