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OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds | Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires | Climate change, national security among topics for final Trump-Biden debate

TGIF! 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@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.

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UNDER-LINED? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will allow utilities to store toxic waste from coal in open, unlined pits — a move that may defy a court order requiring the agency to close certain types of so-called coal ash ponds that may be leaking contaminants into water.

Research has found even plastic-lined coal ash ponds are likely to leak, but those risks are even higher when a clay barrier is the only layer used to hold the arsenic-laced sludge.

Environmental groups have already pledged to sue over the Friday rule, which will allow unlined pits to continue operating so long as companies can demonstrate using groundwater monitoring data that the pond is unlikely to leak.

“These focused common-sense changes allow owners and operators the opportunity to submit a substantial factual and technical demonstration that there is no reasonable probability of groundwater contamination,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerEPA allows use of radioactive material in some road construction Methane emissions up in 2020 amid turbulent year for oil and gas Shuffle of EPA’s science advisers elevates those with industry tries MORE said in a release. “This will allow coal ash management to be determined based on site-specific conditions.” 

There are more than 400 coal ash ponds in the U.S. 

An Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice review of monitoring data from coal ash ponds found 91 percent were leaking toxins in excess of what EPA allows, contaminating groundwater and drinking wells in nearby communities.

And when they aren’t leaching into groundwater, the contaminants risk spilling over the sides of the pond any time there is a heavy rain.

“When ponds without lining leak, it’s often more aggressive, faster and harder to control,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, which will fight the rule in court. “Utilities are asking for favors and exemptions and EPA is willing to give them and is willing to rush to provide these exemptions.”

A 2018 order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit required the EPA to shut down all coal ash ponds that do not have a plastic liner. The ruling said a 2015 Obama-era coal ash rule violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act dealing with hazardous waste “in failing to require the closure of unlined surface impoundments.”

EPA did not answer a question from The Hill seeking an explanation of how the rule complies with the court order. The agency instead wrote in a statement the new rule would “accurately reflect the decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Read more about the EPA’s rule here.

 

FIRE FIGHT: President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeds investigating if alleged Hunter Biden emails connected to foreign intelligence operation: report Six takeaways from Trump and Biden’s dueling town halls Biden draws sharp contrast with Trump in low-key town hall MORE late Friday reversed course on providing assistance for California’s wildfires, granting the request just hours after denying it.

California has had its most devastating wildfire season in history, currently battling 12 major fires that have burned through more than 4 million acres, according to figures released by the state yesterday. 

The White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) initially said California hadn’t made a strong enough case for assistance with the September fires that cost the state more than $229 million.

The White House credited House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyPelosi: Mnuchin says Trump will lobby McConnell on big COVID-19 deal Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats Chamber-backed Democrats embrace endorsements in final stretch MORE (R-Calif.) along with Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomPorter raises .2 million in third quarter Overnight Health Care: Barrett says she’s ‘not hostile’ toward Affordable Care Act | Nominee says she doesn’t classify Roe v Wade as ‘superprecedent’ | Eli Lilly pauses study of COVID-19 treatment over safety concerns What the REFORM Alliance’s victory means for criminal justice reform MORE (D) for changing the president’s mind.

“The governor and Leader McCarthy spoke and presented a convincing case and additional on-the-ground perspective for reconsideration leading the president to approve the declaration,” the White House said in a statement.

Earlier Friday, White House spokesman Judd DeereJudd DeereTrump administration officials pushing to get promised drug-discount cards to seniors before election: report White House compiling ‘dossier’ on WaPo reporter’s work about Trump’s businesses ABC’s Karl rips White House for ‘flagrant violation’ of social distancing in Rose Garden MORE told The Hill that California’s submission was “was not supported by the relevant data” states must provide to be considered for a disaster declaration, adding that the president’s decision concurred with that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator. 

Lizzie Litzow, a spokesperson for FEMA, told The Hill that damage assessments of the early September wildfires “were not of such severity and magnitude to exceed the combined capabilities of the state, affected local governments, voluntary agencies and other responding federal agencies.” 

A White House disaster declaration grant is a huge help to states, allowing for reimbursement of 75 percent of firefighting, evacuation and sheltering costs.

In a Sept. 28 letter to the White House, Newsom said the funds were especially needed as the COVID-19 pandemic has already “significantly damaged” the state’s economy.

“Federal assistance is critical to support physical and economic recovery of California and its communities,” Newsom wrote. “The longer it takes for California and its communities to recover, the more severe, devastating and irreversible the economic impacts will be.”

Read more about the decision here. 

 

PRIME CLIME: The second and final presidential debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFeds investigating if alleged Hunter Biden emails connected to foreign intelligence operation: report Six takeaways from Trump and Biden’s dueling town halls Biden draws sharp contrast with Trump in low-key town hall MORE will focus on topics including the coronavirus pandemic, race in America and climate change, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Friday.

NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker will moderate the debate in Nashville, Tenn. The selected six topics for the event are: fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.

  • The inclusion of climate in the Oct. 22 event means that the topic will have come up at both presidential debates and the vice presidential debate. 

The two candidates will meet on stage next Thursday for just the second time, but it will mark the last debate before Election Day. The two were slated to have a town hall-style debate this week, but the event was canceled after Trump balked at having it take place virtually following his COVID-19 diagnosis.

Instead, Biden and Trump held competing town halls at the same time on Thursday night hosted by ABC and NBC, respectively.

  • And at that ABC town hall, Biden tried to separate his climate plan from the Green New Deal.

Biden distanced himself from the Green New Deal at Thursday night’s town hall, telling the audience “my deal is the crucial framework.”

Biden’s comments came in response to ABC host George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosSix takeaways from Trump and Biden’s dueling town halls Biden draws sharp contrast with Trump in low-key town hall Biden leaves door open to adding Supreme Court justices MORE, who pointed to a line in Biden’s climate plan that calls the progressive 2017 resolution “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.”

“My deal is the crucial framework, not the New Green Deal,” Biden said. “The New Green Deal calls for the elimination of all nonrenewable energy by 2030 — you can’t get there. You’re going to need to be able to transition.”

Biden’s plan does depart from the Green New Deal in a few key ways, including reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, with the electric sector reaching that goal first, by 2035.

Green New Deal co-sponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezPocan won’t seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Radiation elevated at fracking sites, researchers find Betting on the ‘base’ — can Trump win again? MORE (D-N.Y.) and other progressives have said the U.S. should reach net-zero emissions by 2030, though the resolution itself calls on all countries to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

And while Biden sees his climate plan as part of a larger economic vision — investing in the technology needed to reduce emissions will spur jobs and growth, he said — the former vice president does not call for a job guarantee or government-provided health care for all. 

“When Biden laid out his own climate plan, he acknowledged that the Green New Deal is a crucial framework — or structure — to arrange thinking on climate because it includes two truths that he carried into his own plan: 1) the urgent need for action, and 2) a recognition of the interconnectedness of our environment and economy,” a Biden campaign official said in a statement.

“You can see those truths in his plan. But his plan is very much the Biden plan,” they added.

Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisFeinstein’s hug of Lindsey Graham sparks outrage on the left The Hill’s Campaign Report: Trump, Biden brace for dueling town halls Greta Thunberg mocks Barrett for not having ‘views on climate change’ MORE (D-Calif.), did embrace the Green New Deal during her own presidential run and introduced legislation to begin implementing certain aspects of the resolution. 

Biden’s plan also does not call for an end to fracking, as those on the left like Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter’s handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech’s liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon Democratic senators question Amazon over reported interference of workers’ rights to organize Americans’ dwindling belief in American exceptionalism MORE (I-Vt.) have sought. 

But he would bar any new drilling on public lands, which would include any new fracking permits, and a transition away from fossil fuels would undoubtedly limit the industry.

Read more about Thursday’s town hall here and about the upcoming debate topics here

 

BROUILLETTE SECURITY STAFFERS TEST POSITIVE: Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette will return to Washington, D.C., after two members of his security detail tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Brouillette tested negative and is not showing symptoms, but he and his staff will return to the city by car “out of an abundance of caution,” Energy Department spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement late Thursday. 

Hynes said that Brouillette will follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The department did not immediately respond to The Hill’s question about specific precautions the secretary would take. 

According to the CDC, people who come into close contact with those who test positive should stay home for 14 days and keep a distance of at least six feet from others at all times. 

The Energy secretary was slated to be in Ohio on Friday for a roundtable with industry leaders on the future of energy jobs in the region. 

He was also expected to meet with stakeholders regarding a proposed petrochemical complex. 

Earlier this week, Brouillette attended an event in Tennessee with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R). A member of Lee’s security detail has also tested positive for the coronavirus. 

The story is here. 

 

OUTSIDE (AND INSIDE) THE BELTWAY:

Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant closes for good, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports

Taxpayers, not company, will pay for massive Exide toxic cleanup, under plan OK’d by court, The Los Angeles Times reports

U.S. oil majors pitch more campaign cash to Democrats as frack battle looms, Reuters reports

 

ICYMI:

Biden distances himself from Green New Deal during town hall

Park Police officers charged with involuntary manslaughter in fatal 2017 shooting

Climate change, national security among topics for final Trump-Biden debate

EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds

Energy secretary returns to DC after security staffers test positive for coronavirus 

Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires

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