Raimondo fails to reassure a rattled solar industry

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🚨 The Interior Department confirmed on Wednesday that it will not hold three offshore oil and gas lease sales that had been scheduled to take place. More on that below. But first:

Raimondo fails to reassure a rattled solar industry

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on Wednesday sought to reassure clean energy advocates that her department would move “as fast as possible” to complete an investigation that has brought the U.S. solar industry to a halt.

But her comments failed to assuage the concerns of top solar industry officials, who criticized Raimondo for making what they viewed as misleading statements to lawmakers.

“I personally am just really outraged by some of the things that the secretary said,” Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group that represents solar installers, told reporters.

The details: Raimondo testified Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies about President Biden‘s budget request for the Commerce Department for fiscal year 2023.

In a rare instance of bipartisanship, both Republicans and Democrats on the panel voiced serious concerns about Commerce’s investigation into solar panel makers from four Southeast Asian countries. The probe centers on whether panels assembled in those countries — Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam — are circumventing rules intended to block China from dumping heavily subsidized panels into the American market.

Solar developers have warned that the investigation could lead to retroactive tariffs as high as 250 percent on the Asian suppliers. But Raimondo sought to push back on that claim.

“It is true Commerce would be permitted to impose a tariff at that excessive level,” she said. “That is exceedingly unlikely, which is to say that level of a tariff is only reserved in outside cases when you can’t tell the difference between the company and, say, the Communist Party of China. The last 150 times we’ve done this since 2012, we’ve come out in the 10, 11, 12 percent range.”

Hopper called those comments “disingenuous.”

Raimondo “made some statements about what the rates have been in the past,” Hopper said. “We don’t think that’s the whole story. … There are a number of ways in which those rates that apply to different companies get set.”

Commerce opened the investigation on April 1 in response to a petition from Auxin Solar, a small California-based panel manufacturer. 

Since then, hundreds of large solar projects have been frozen or delayed as investors become unnerved by the prospect of paying retroactive tariffs. The latest climate casualty came last week, when Indiana utility NiSource announced that it was delaying the retirement of a coal-fired power plant because the solar energy needed to replace its electricity output wouldn’t be available.

Many big solar developers have argued that Auxin’s petition lacked any merit, and that Commerce shouldn’t have opened the investigation in the first place. 

Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), the top Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee, mused about crafting legislation that would require a certain percentage of solar developers to sign off on such probes in the future.

“Why is there no industry-supported threshold to initiate this anti-circumvention inquiry? Would legislation be helpful?” Moran asked. “When I’ve asked you this question, I think the answer has been, ‘Our hands are tied.’ I’m trying to figure out how to untie your hands.”

Avoiding political interference

The solar industry has warned that the probe threatens President Biden‘s ambitious goal of zeroing out carbon emissions from the nation’s electricity sector by 2035. Top climate officials in the Biden administration, including Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry, have relayed the industry’s concerns in internal administration discussions, our colleagues Evan Halper and Jeff Stein reported. 

However, the officials have been careful to avoid the appearance of political interference in the probe, which is being conducted by career employees at Commerce’s International Trade Administration

In doing so, the Biden officials have sought to distance themselves from the Trump administration, which faced accusations of political interference in the work of career scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and elsewhere in the federal government.

But Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), one of Congress’s most vocal climate hawks, said Raimondo has broad discretion under the law to take a more active role in the probe.

“You do have the discretion to get a little more personally engaged,” Schatz said. “It doesn’t jeopardize the independence of the investigation.”

Commerce has 150 days to make a preliminary determination on the probe. A decision is expected by the end of August.

Interior Department nixes three offshore oil lease sales

The Interior Department confirmed on Wednesday that it will not hold three oil and gas lease sales that had been scheduled to take place in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, The Washington Post’s Anna Phillips reports.

The decision effectively ends the possibility that the federal government will hold an oil and gas lease sale in coastal waters this year — a reality that is certain to rankle the fossil fuel industry. 

The current five-year offshore drilling plan will expire at the end of June, and Interior cannot hold any new lease sales until it has released a replacement plan. But the department has not yet proposed a new plan, nor have officials indicated when one might be coming.

In an email Wednesday evening, Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz cited “conflicting court rulings” and a “lack of industry interest” as reasons for nixing the two planned auctions in the Gulf of Mexico and the 1 million-acre sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

Total, Duke are winners in latest offshore wind auction

France-based TotalEnergies and U.S. power company Duke Energy each won offshore wind leases in federal waters off the Carolinas, the Interior Department announced Wednesday.

The winning bids total $315 million and cover 110,091 acres in the Carolina Long Bay area. Once fully developed, the leases could generate enough wind energy to power 500,000 homes.

The Biden administration’s first offshore wind auction occurred in the New York Bight in January and fetched a record $4.37 billion. Both auctions will bring the nation closer to President Biden‘s goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030. 

Hoyer says House will take up gasoline ‘price gouging’ bill

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday that Democrats will seek to pass legislation next week to empower the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the oil industry is defrauding American consumers at the gas pump. 

“We’re going to consider a bill that deals with price gouging,” Hoyer said at his weekly “pen and pad” briefing with reporters, adding, “Obviously, our people are worried about inflation.”

The average price for a gallon of gasoline nationwide hit $4.37 on Tuesday, the highest price AAA has recorded since it started keeping track in 2000. Many Democrats remain anxious that high gas prices could harm their chances in the midterm elections. But while House Democratic leadership has sought to pin the blame on oil and gas companies, previous FTC probes have uncovered no evidence of price gouging. 

Meanwhile, Hoyer plans to testify at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday on forest conservation. He intends to discuss his AMAZON21 legislation, which would authorize a trust fund of $9 billion for the State Department to help developing countries fight deforestation, a spokesman said in an email to The Climate 202.

House Natural Resources panel calls for investigation into Bernhardt

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether David Bernhardt, a former secretary of the Interior, and other Trump administration officials engaged in a “quid pro quo” with a politically powerful Arizona developer, Jennifer Yachnin reports for E&E News. 

The complaint, led by Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, focuses on a 2017 decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to reverse its demands for an environmental review of a residential development in Benson, Ariz. 

The lawmakers allege that El Dorado Holdings was able to obtain a Clean Water Act permit for the development because of an agreement that brought donations to former President Donald Trump’s fundraising committees.

A lawyer representing El Dorado Holdings slammed the lawmakers’ criminal referral, saying it is “false, misleading, unfair, and strikes me as reminiscent of McCarthyism’s use of innuendo as a surrogate for fact.”

Senate Republicans press Mallory on 30×30 goal

Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) on Thursday led a letter to Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory arguing that President Biden‘s goal of conserving at least 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 should go through an analysis and public comment period under the National Environmental Policy Act

The letter, which comes after Mallory testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday, was signed by 19 GOP colleagues, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on the panel.

Manchin’s bipartisan energy talks shouldn’t hamstring reconciliation effort, Whitehouse says

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on Wednesday said he is fine with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) holding bipartisan energy and climate talks, provided that the negotiations don’t interfere with Democrats’ efforts to pass their stalled budget reconciliation bill.

“As long as the bipartisan effort isn’t being used to handicap or even kneecap the reconciliation effort, then I think it’s all to the good,” Whitehouse said during a virtual event hosted by Ceres, a sustainability-focused nonprofit that works with companies and investors.

“The reconciliation bill is not dead. It is alive and well until September 30″ when Congress leaves for the August recess, he added.

Whitehouse also announced that in the coming weeks, he and other senators plan to introduce legislation to establish a carbon border adjustment, which would impose a fee on imports from countries with looser environmental standards.

We can’t stop watching this video, which our colleagues Jason Samenow and Brady Dennis wrote about here.