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By Tom DiChristopher, CNBC

President Donald Trump set in motion a vast rollback of energy, climate and environmental regulations during his first two years in office. Over the next two years, those actions will face intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives and the committees that conduct government oversight. Within the first few months of the year, incoming committee chairs intend to hold a series of hearings to pick apart Trump’s energy and environmental policies and what role industry insiders played in crafting them.

The Trump administration has targeted dozens of rules. Some of the biggest items on its agenda include withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, expanding drilling on federal lands, and watering down rules ranging from limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants to fuel efficiency in cars and trucks.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat tipped to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, says Americans can expect the committee to probe the financial costs and public health risks associated with Interior Department policies under Trump. Those include rolling back methane emissions rules from oil and gas operations and making virtually all federally administered offshore waters available to drillers.

“The Trump administration has spent two years giving away the store to fossil fuel companies, and Republicans in Congress cheered every step of the way,” said Grijalva. “We need to know what kind of impact this corporate favoritism is having on average Americans’ health and quality of life.”

With House Republicans wielding committee gavels during the first two years of the Trump administration, the president’s deregulatory agenda has proceeded with minimal scrutiny. Now, administration officials and energy industry executives are bracing for a grilling on Capitol Hill.

“No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, which is what these guys are about to face,” said Rich Gold, a partner at lobbying firm Holland & Knight, referencing the famous “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch.

Building a record to battle Trump

Gold, who heads his firm’s public policy and regulation group, says the hearings create several opportunities for Democrats.

First, they will bog down the administration in requests for information, leaving it less bandwidth to continue slashing regulations. Second, the hearings create an on-the-record account detailing how the administration developed its policies and who it consulted to craft its agenda.

That record provides fodder for the many lawsuits aimed at defeating Trump’s energy and environmental rollback. It can also be leveraged by Trump’s challenger in the 2020 presidential contest to make the case that Trump put industry profits ahead of public health and climate action.

The hearings also present an opportunity for Democrats to trip up administration officials and damage the administration’s credibility, says Gold.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who will likely become Speaker of the House, last week opened another avenue to scrutinize Trump’s policies with the creation of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Trump rejects the consensus among climate scientists that global warming is primarily caused by human activity and presents an urgent threat to the world. He dismissed a recent report by his own administration that climate-related impacts could shave 10 percent off the U.S. economy by 2100.

In a statement, Pelosi said, “The American people have demanded action to combat the climate crisis, which threatens our public health, our economy, our national security and the whole of God’s creation.”

Don’t bet on big energy legislation

But with Congress divided and many Republicans still downplaying global warming risks, few Washington watchers expect much, if any, meaningful energy or climate legislation to emerge from Capitol Hill.

“I don’t have high expectations about legislation,” said David Konisky, associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “I think most of the activity from the Democrats will be oversight of policy and activities inside the EPA and the Department of Interior.”

One area that could generate bipartisan support is carbon capture and storage, says Ben Finzel, president at Washington communications firm RenewPR.

The technology strips carbon emissions from power plants and other industrial activity and sequesters it underground. The process has not been proven commercially viable at scale, but it is widely seen as critical to mitigating the impacts of climate change because developing nations around the world are still building coal plants.

“The interesting thing about carbon capture is that it really is bipartisan and there are folks on both sides of the aisle in both chambers that like the concept of addressing at least a piece of energy policy, whether it be jobs or emissions reduction or technology innovation,” said Finzel, whose clients include the Carbon Capture Coalition, which advocates for the technology.

Rebuilding American infrastructure is also seen as some of the most fertile ground for bipartisan compromise and could yield progress in the realm of energy. Democrats say they want an infrastructure bill to include provisions to modernize the nation’s energy infrastructure, expand renewable energy and bioenergy and invest in energy efficiency and smart technology.

Gold, the public policy head at Holland & Knight, says disagreements over how to fund infrastructure spending could be an obstacle, but it’s one area where Trump is fairly content to let Congress hammer out the details. An infrastructure bill would also give him another legislative credential after two years with little to show in terms of bipartisan lawmaking.

“I think he has to go bold on something like that because if he doesn’t, what he’s done so far is not going to get him across the finish line” in the 2020 presidential election, he said.

But Democrats must also contend with intraparty fighting.

The party’s progressive wing, led by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is pushing for a “Green New Deal,” a sweeping stimulus package that calls for generating all U.S. electric power from renewable sources within 10 years. Some centrist Democrats and members of the establishment worry the plan is unfeasible and threatens to alienate independents and moderate Republicans ahead of 2020 elections.

Ocasio-Cortez has taken a combative stance and said Pelosi’s new select committee will be weaker than one the leader convened when she was last Speaker of the House.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a rare coal supporter within the Democratic party, will also become the ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee. Environmentalists and progressives worry that Manchin will use the position to advocate for the coal industry, a powerful player in his state.

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Democratic mayor Pete Buttigieg running for president; would be first openly gay nominee



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 / Updated 

By Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Democrat Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is forming an exploratory committee for a 2020 presidential bid, according to a video and email announcement.

“The reality is there’s no going back, and there’s no such thing as ‘again’ in the real world. We can’t look for greatness in the past,” Buttigieg says in a video that includes before-and-after footage of South Bend, a Rust Belt city once described as “dying.”

“Right now our country needs a fresh start,” he says.

If he were to win the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay presidential nominee from a major political party.

Buttigieg has touted his work to improve his city of 100,000 residents as he’s prepared for an improbable jump from local politics to a presidential campaign. He’s also said Democrats could benefit from a new generation of leaders as they try to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.

He’s expected to travel to Iowa next week to meet with voters in the nation’s first caucus state, followed by stops in New Hampshire.

Buttigieg is a Rhodes scholar who was first elected mayor of his hometown in 2011 at age 29 — making him the youngest mayor of a U.S. city with at least 100,000 residents. A lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, he served a tour in Afghanistan in 2014.

Buttigieg raised his national profile with an unsuccessful 2017 run for Democratic National Committee chairman, saying the party needed a new start. He withdrew from the race before a vote when it became clear he didn’t have the support to win.

Buttigieg has spent time in Iowa and other battleground states in recent years as he tried to build financial support and name recognition. He cracks that those who do know his name still aren’t sure how to pronounce it. Most of the time he goes by “Mayor Pete.”

Amid his campaign for a second term, Buttigieg came out as gay in a column in the local newspaper. He went on to win re-election with 80 percent of the vote. In 2018 — three years to the day after the column ran — he married his husband, middle school teacher Chasten Glezman.

Buttigieg announced in December that he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor, stoking speculation he would join a field of roughly two dozen candidates who may seek the Democratic nomination for president — most of them better-known and with experience in higher office, and all of them older.

“I belong to a generation that is stepping forward right now,” he says in the video released Wednesday. “We’re the generation that lived through school shootings, that served in the wars after 9/11, and we’re the generation that stands to be the first to make less than our parents unless we do something different. We can’t just polish off a system so broken. It is a season for boldness and a focus on the future.”

Buttigieg is releasing a book in February about his life and his tenure leading South Bend.

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Shutdown could further endanger whales



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By Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to the federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Outside of the federal government, work to protect whales is still going on. The developer of an offshore wind energy project off Massachusetts announced Wednesday it is partnering with environmental groups on a plan to try to protect the right whales.

And not all the news about the whales is gloomy. A Florida research team has located the third right whale calf of the season. None were spotted last season.

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said that a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and that he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.”

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Trump says he will not give State of the Union until government shutdown is over



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By Phil Helsel

President Donald Trump late Wednesday announced he would not hold a State of the Union address until after the partial government shutdown, now in its fifth week, is over.

The announcement made shortly after 11 p.m. seemingly puts to rest a dispute between the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over whether the address would be held.

Pelosi said in a letter earlier Wednesday that the Democratic-controlled House “will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the president’s State of the Union address in the House chamber until the government has opened.”

Trump said on Twitter: “As the Shutdown was going on, Nancy Pelosi asked me to give the State of the Union Address. I agreed. She then changed her mind because of the Shutdown, suggesting a later date. This is her prerogative – I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over.”

The president is not allowed to speak in the chamber, the traditional spot for the State of the Union address, unless the House and Senate pass a resolution allowing him to do so.

Pelosi had initially invited Trump to give the speech later this month, but she sent him a letter last week asking him to delay his remarks or submit them in writing. She cited concerns over security because of the partial government shutdown, which affects the Department of Homeland Security.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump said, “The State of the Union speech has been canceled by Nancy Pelosi because she doesn’t want to hear the truth. She doesn’t want the American public to hear what’s going on.”

“Great blotch on the incredible country we that all love. Great, great horrible mark,” Trump said.

Asked if he’d be giving a speech Tuesday night, the president responded that an announcement would be forthcoming soon.

The government has been partially shut down since Dec. 22, in a dispute over Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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