French government blocks ‘dirty’ LNG

This article features Government Accountability Project and our client Kevin Chmielewski and was originally published here.

The French government blocked a $7 billion LNG deal between Engie and a U.S. gas supplier over concerns that West Texas gas was too dirty.

— President Donald Trump and Joe Biden will lock horns on climate and energy policy during the final presidential debate tonight.

— Two Democratic committee chairs in the House are in tight reelection races that have potential implications for climate and energy policy.


FRANCE SAYS MAIS NON TO LNG DEAL: The French government blocked trading firm Engie from signing a potential $7 billion deal with a U.S. liquefied natural gas company last month over concerns that its U.S. shale gas was too dirty, two people familiar with the situation told POLITICO’s Ben Lefebvre. The 20-year contract would have delivered LNG from NextDecade’s planned Rio Grande export facility in Brownsville, Texas.

What happened: The French government, which is a part owner of Engie, stepped in to tell Engie’s board of directors to delay — if not outright cancel — any deal out of concern that U.S. natural gas producers emit too much methane at the West Texas oil and gas fields that will supply the NextDecade plant, said Lorette Philippot, head of private finance campaigns for French environmental group Les Amis de la Terre. The incident was first reported by a French news site but independently confirmed to POLITICO.

“It could still be signed in the coming weeks,” Philippot said. “But what is sure is the political, reputational risk around the validation of the contracts is one of the elements there. The climate impacts played a role.”

In the backdrop: The European Union has sought a European Green Deal to combat climate change, and the European Commission has singled out energy imports as a major source of methane emissions. The news also underscores a growing concern among some U.S. natural gas exporters that the regulatory rollbacks pushed by the Trump administration, as well as the industry’s overall failure to rein in emissions, are making it more difficult to sell their product overseas as a cleaner alternative to oil or coal.

“We’re probably going to go from trade war to carbon trade war pretty seamlessly in the next 10 years,” said Kevin Book, director of analysis firm ClearView Energy. “Whatever you think is going to happen on climate, you have to predicate it against that.”

Consider this: A recent international survey by Pew Research Center found the largest ideological gap on natural gas use in the U.S. Eighty-eight percent of conservatives support using more natural gas, while 45 percent of liberals said the same.

2020 WATCH

ONE MORE TIME: Trump and Biden are set to clash at the second and final debate tonight, where climate change will be a major point of divide. The topic remains on a list of six issues chosen by moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, despite a last-minute push from the Trump campaign to refocus the debate on foreign policy.

That said, expect Trump — whose mic (along with Biden’s) will be muted tonight if he talks over his opponent — to focus on Biden’s foreign policy chops and his son Hunter Biden for allegedly profiting off his father’s position. When it comes to climate change, Biden does have a plan that factors in foreign powers: Namely rejoining the Paris climate agreement and engaging with world leaders to increase their climate ambitions alongside the U.S. Trump, by contrast, has promised to exit the Paris accord and has continued to pitch an “America first” energy agenda.

You’ll also likely see Trump pivot the conversation back to accuse Biden of seeking to ban fracking — an attack line Trump has repeatedly employed despite Biden’s own repeated insistence that he will not end the practice. Trump, however, took the talking point — which he sees as a crucial energy throughline in the battleground state of Pennsylvania — one step further this week by broadcasting a video at a Keystone State rally with comments from Biden and running mate Kamala Harris that are critical of fossil fuels and a since-walked back gaffe from Biden that he would end new fracking.


Few races are likely to turn on energy and environmental issues during this nationalized election cycle, but POLITICO Energy reporters are watching a handful of key themes. Leading up to Election Day, we’ll be spotlighting one each day. Pro’s Anthony Adragna takes a look today at vulnerable committee chairs:

IN THE HOT SEATS: Democrats believe they have a good shot at expanding their majority across the country in next month’s election, but there are two notable exceptions with big potential implications for climate and energy policy: Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

DeFazio faces a serious challenge for his southwest Oregon district in the form of 28-year-old Alek Skarlatos, who helped stop a terrorist attack aboard a train in Europe. The district is fairly even in pure partisan registration, leading Republicans to see an opening to hit the incumbent over his support for the Green New Deal. The veteran Democrat crafted a hefty transportation package, H.R. 2 (116), this Congress with significant climate provisions and would play a key role should Congress consider a massive infrastructure package early next year, as anticipated if Biden wins. The contest is currently rated “Lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report.

Peterson represents the reddest district currently held by a Democrat (it voted for Trump by more than 20 points), but he’s defied its partisan drift thanks in large part to his championing agricultural interests. He faces former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach in a contest that’s drawn millions in outside spending. Peterson often votes against his party on regulatory matters but could play a role in shaping agriculture-related provisions in future climate change legislation. This race is considered a “Tossup” by the Cook Political Report.

One other contest for eagle-eyed climate watchers is that of Rep. Harley Rouda, a first-term Democrat in Orange County who chairs the House Oversight Environment Subcommittee. He’s used that perch to hold hearings on climate change and PFAS chemicals, but he’s facing a strong challenge from Michelle Steel. The contest is “Lean Democratic,” per Cook.


WATCHDOG: DOI SENIOR EMPLOYEE BROKE ETHICS PLEDGE: An unnamed senior political employee at the Interior Department violated the Trump administration ethics pledge forbidding interactions with former employers for two years after taking office, according to an inspector general report released Wednesday. The OIG said that three phone calls, an in-person meeting, and email exchanges between the unnamed official, who started at Interior in fall 2017, and a former employer all violated the pledge. However, the report found that a presentation the person made in their official capacity at an event hosted by the employer was not a violation, Pro’s Eric Wolff reports.

The Hill reported the unnamed official was Todd Wynn, a political appointee in the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs who exited DOI last year.

FORMER TRUMP EPA OFFICIAL SUES: Former Trump EPA political staffer-turned-whistleblower Kevin Chmielewski is suing EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, as well as Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, over what he alleges was a violation of his right to free speech and due process by removing him from EPA and refusing to hire him at DOE. “These actions were taken for retaliatory purposes and without due process of law,” said the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. Chmielewski, who previously served as deputy chief of staff for operations at EPA under former Administrator Scott Pruitt, said he was escorted out of the EPA building in February 2018 without notice or reason.

He alleges he was removed “because he engaged in a series of allegations to appropriate officials, human resources staff, agency counsel, and Congressional committees” contending that Pruitt displayed a pattern and practice of incurring travel expenses, office improvements and use of staff for personal tasks. He said he was unable to find work in his field since the termination, until DOE in March of this year informed him that he would be hired.

Days later, the White House Presidential Personnel Office informed him there would be “no place for him in the Trump Administration due to his protected activity,” the suit said. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Chmielewski by the Government Accountability Project, seeks either his reinstatement as EPA deputy chief of staff retroactively, or instatement in the non-career position he was told to expect at DOE. Asked about the suit, an EPA spokesperson told ME the agency “can’t comment on pending litigation.”

EPA CHIEF DEFENDS ENFORCEMENT: EPA went on the defensive Wednesday following new research that found prosecutions of environmental crimes “plummeted” under the first two years of the Trump administration. In a call with reporters, EPA enforcement chief Susan Bodine criticized press coverage of the agency’s enforcement. “There is an untold story out there — it is counter to the conventional wisdom that everybody thinks they know, which I would probably argue is simply not true — and that is that the staff here at EPA, the enforcement staff, are doing a great job and have great accomplishments,” she said.

Research published last week by the University of Michigan Law School showed a 70 percent decrease in Clean Water Act prosecutions under Trump and a more than 50 percent decrease in Clean Air Act prosecutions. Bodine dismissed the research, which examined cases brought between 2005 and 2018 and was authored by David Uhlmann, a former DOJ official. “It surprised me that he reviews in prosecutions, which is a lagging indicator,” Bodine said, pointing instead to new cases opened.

Bodine also said before the end of the first term of the Trump administration, the enforcement program will see “tremendous results” that are not yet counted because of pending court action. “There are some very big cases that we have settled but have not yet been entered by courts, so in the next few months, before you get to the end of the first term of the Trump administration, we are actually going to have double the number of criminal fines and restitution and civil penalties,” she said.


BLACK EMPLOYEES CALL OUT RACISM AT CARB: Black employees of the California Air Resources Board raised concerns about a racist work environment and are calling for more representation at the state’s main air and climate agency in a letter POLITICO obtained this week. The letter includes two dozen accounts of racist or biased behavior at the agency and an “action plan” that calls for appointing at least one Black board member and two other people of color to fill upcoming vacancies on the board, Pro’s Debra Kahn reports. CARB is planning to adopt a resolution at its board meeting today directing agency staff to “work to remediate race-based harms within CARB’s jurisdiction.”

The 13-page letter identifies issues with the agency’s hiring practices, lack of support for Black employees and lack of representation. Black employees reported being passed over for promotions, not receiving equal treatment during the hiring process, having white employees call security on them and being told by white managers to “tone it down” during meetings.


BARRETT VOTE INCHES FORWARD: The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote today to advance the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, teeing up a final confirmation vote early next week. But don’t expect Democrats to attend: They plan to boycott the vote in an act of protest, POLITICO’s Marianne LeVine reports.

Doc dive: Ahead of the vote, the committee released Barrett’s written responses to questions from the panel, in which Barrett maintained her refusal to weigh in on climate change. “The Supreme Court has described ‘climate change’ as a ‘controversial subject’ and ‘sensitive political topic,'” she wrote. “As a sitting judge, it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in further on the matter.”

Barrett also said she listed Shell Oil Company, Shell Oil Products Company LLC, Shell Oil Refinery, and Shell Petroleum Inc. on her recusal list out of “an abundance of caution” since her father worked at Shell Oil Company for many years. But she punted on a question on why other oil affiliations did not make the list, including the American Petroleum Institute. “The question of recusal is a threshold question of law that must be addressed in the context of the facts of each case,” she wrote.

TESTER INTRODUCES BILL TO BLOCK PENDLEY APPEAL: Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) unveiled legislation Wednesday to block the Justice Department from appealing a federal court decision that blocked William Perry Pendley from acting as the director of the Bureau of Land Management. The legislation, dubbed the Public Lands Leadership Act, comes as the Interior Department has said it would appeal the court’s ruling.