Overnight Energy & Environment

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior sued over temporary appointments of top officials | Watchdog to probe why tribal stimulus was steered to corporations | EPA’s independent science board, critics push for stronger lead rule

APPOINTING FINGERS: Environmentalists on Monday sued the Interior Department over its temporary appointments of top officials to positions that typically require a Senate confirmation. 

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Western Watersheds Project objected to the continued appointments of the acting leaders of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service (NPS). 

The groups argue that the repeated tenure extensions of William Perry Pendley and David Vela are unconstitutional, adding that neither is qualified to lead their respective agency. 

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week extended the tenures of Pendley and Vela by one month. Pendley was first appointed in July and Vela was first appointed in September. 

The May 5 order that prolonged their tenures stated that their appointments are to “vacant non-career positions during the Presidential transition pending Senate-confirmation of new non-career officials.”

The lawsuit, however, states that the presidential transition “is long past” and notes that “there are no nominees pending for Senate confirmation for either the BLM or NPS Director.”

“These serial, ‘temporary’ appointments for Pendley to head the nation’s largest public lands agency are not only irresponsible but illegal, as well,” said a statement from Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds Project. 

“William Perry Pendley has little chance of surviving the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation process, as he has been a public lands extremist, dedicated to selling off public lands or handing over public resources to mineral and livestock industries throughout his career,” he added. 

Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson pushed back on the lawsuit, telling The Hill in a statement that it was “baseless.”

“As we continue to address this national emergency, these special interest groups would rather seek to divert critical taxpayer resources on a baseless lawsuit and attempt to remove the leaders of critical government bureaus,” Swanson said. “Mr. Pendley and Mr. Vela are providing crucial leadership, and the Department is grateful for their service.” 

Pendley has been a particularly controversial pick to lead the BLM, which manages the nation’s public lands, as he has previously advocated for selling federal lands. 

Read more about the lawsuit here.

IT’S MONDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill’s roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@digital-stage.thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@digital-stage.thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.

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WATCHING OUT: The Department of the Interior’s internal watchdog has kicked off a probe into whether a top official inappropriately tried to steer coronavirus stimulus funds.

The letter from Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) comes as several Democratic lawmakers requested an investigation into Tara Sweeney, Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

Sweeney had assisted the Treasury Department in determining how to distribute $8 billion of CARES funding that Congress set aside for tribal governments.

But her handling of the issue led to calls for her resignation after for-profit companies, including one she used to work for, would have been eligible for the payments.

Forms to apply for the funding, however, asked applicants to list either their total tribal population or their number of shareholders, a nod to so-called Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) that earn money from vast forrest and oil holdings.

The inclusion of ANCs irked other tribes as well as lawmakers who said the funds were intended for tribal governments, not businesses. Sweeney’s previous employer, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, is one of the companies that stood to benefit from the stimulus funding.

“Her active financial interest in Arctic Slope raises questions about whether her involvement in determining ANCs would be eligible for CARES Act funding specifically intended for federally recognized tribal governments violated ethics rules and/or pledges,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-A.Z.) wrote in a letter to Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt earlier this month. 

That letter was signed by six other representatives, while Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) made a similar request.

A response to the lawmakers obtained by The Hill doesn’t name Sweeney outright, but OIG says it will undertake a review “to determine whether there was adherence to ethics rules and regulations and compliance with the ethics pledge as it relates to CARES Act funding.”

In a statement, Interior claimed Sweeney had not broken any laws.

“Assistant Secretary Sweeney is upholding her ethical responsibilities and complies with all laws and regulations. She relies on the advice of career ethics officials to ensure compliance with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.”

It was only last week that tribes first began receiving part of the $8 billion in payments, with Treasury handing out the first 60 percent of the funds more than a month after Congress first passed the CARES Act. 

Read more on the probe here

A LEAD DOWN: The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to address lead in water isn’t as aggressive as it could be, the agency’s independent science advisors, as well as other outside groups, said Monday.

At a hearing of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) both members and those from the environment and public health groups said the agency should do more to replace the lead service lines that connect an estimated 6 million houses to the water main, contaminating water as it runs through the pipes.

The October proposal from the EPA doesn’t lower the 15 parts per billion (ppb) lead action level, instead adding a 10 ppb “trigger level” that pushes cities to add treatments to water to counter the lead.  

It also slows the rate that cities must replace those lead service lines — just 3 percent a year rather than the current requirement of 7 percent.

In its latest report, the SAB came out against the proposed trigger level, saying it “adds unnecessary complexity resulting from having to make lead management decisions,” while not enacting stricter limits that recognize there is no safe level of lead.

The report also questioned the cost-benefit analysis behind the proposal, saying it excluded assumptions that “would likely support more aggressive efforts to replace service lines.” 

Part of the fear expressed by health advocates is that the EPA plan would lead to more partial replacements of lead service lines, where cities replace just those on the city side of the property line, leaving homeowners to foot the bill to replace the line from the sidewalk to the house.

Cutting into a lead line, however, can disturb lead in the pipes, actually releasing more lead into the home’s water.

Public health advocates hoped the EPA would do more to ramp up replacements of both sides of the line, rather than ease requirements on how many lines cities with elevated lead levels must replace.

“EPA should require water systems to cover the full cost of replacement, regardless of ownership or location of the line,” said Lynn Thorp national campaign director for Clean Water Action, as partial replacements “can increase lead exposure for days, months or even longer.” 

Slowing the rate at which cities must replace lead service lines could also have serious consequences, many callers said, urging the agency to move more swiftly that the 30-year timeline they proposed.

Read more about the hearing here

HF SEE YOU IN COURT: Environmentalists sued the Trump administration on Monday over the rollback of an Obama-era rule meant to police the release of powerful greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that are used in refrigerators. 

The new Trump administration rule that became effective last month “relieve[s] businesses from having to repair leaks, conduct leak inspections, and keep records for appliances” that contain certain refrigerants such as HFCs, according to the EPA’s Federal Register notice.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a federal lawsuit against the rule Monday, calling it “wrong-headed and wasteful.”

“This rollback makes no sense, except to the Trump EPA in its unrelenting drive to put polluters ahead of people,” David Doniger, senior strategic director in the NRDC’s Climate and Clean Energy Program, said in a statement. 

“The EPA would rather allow these easily prevented HFC emissions equal to carbon pollution from 625,000 cars hit the atmosphere every year, than require technicians take reasonable steps to find and fix leaks,” he added. 

An EPA official declined to comment on the lawsuit, telling The Hill in a statement that the agency “does not comment on pending litigation.”

The agency has estimated that the rule will save companies about $24 million per year.

It acknowledged, however, that the change will lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA estimated that these additional emissions will be the equivalent of releasing an additional 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air. 

Read more about the court challenge here.


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