Week Ending June 5, 2020

White House Orders Energy Infrastructure Moves as Spat with Murkowski Heats Up

This Article Appears as Published in Foster Report No 3302
White House Orders Energy Infrastructure Moves as Spat with Murkowski Heats Up

A White House executive order to expedite energy infrastructure investments and other measures to restart the economy normally would be big news, but it is being overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s dispute with Republicans, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), over his handling of the angst and protests taking place nationwide.

Saying he will campaign against Murkowski when she faces a re-election decision in 2022, Trump on June 4 posted many items on Twitter, none of which mentioned the executive order issued the same day. That order uses the national emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic to direct agencies to move swiftly on economic recovery measures, sidestepping the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if needed.

After Murkowski commended former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ rebuke of Trump’s proposal to use U.S. military forces to control protests, the president tweeted “Few people know where they’ll be in two years from now, but I do.” He said he will be campaigning against Murkowski, listing votes where she went against his agenda.

“Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you,” Trump posted.

With a narrow Republican majority in the Senate, chastising and urging replacement of Murkowski, who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, during a presidential election year struck many as odd. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has also been the target of Trump’s scorn, praised Mattis for his criticism of the president.

The White House has been among the many gathering spots for protests that began after the death of George Floyd, the African American who died after being forcibly restrained by Minneapolis police. Trump’s words to governors on June 1 to control violent demonstrations or risk looking weak were questioned, and then, when protesters at the White House were dispersed June 3 for a Trump photo opportunity at a church, the criticism ratcheted up. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and others said they opposed using military personnel to respond to protests.

Murkowski on June 4 addressed Mattis’ letter, published in The Atlantic about the protests. She also posted her fourth podcast entitled Murkowski Matters, with energy analyst guests, and spoke from the Senate floor about civil unrest and racial inequality. She acknowledged that she has struggled to find the right words and been chastised by some close friends who had questioned her silence on the protests and related issues.

Murkowski’s floor speech was preceded by remarks from Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and she said that as a white woman born and raised in Alaska in a privileged family, she has a different life experience than those two colleagues, “but I can listen, and I can educate myself.” Racial injustice is a wound that is still open in America, Murkowski said from the floor, and stopping violent protests and looting will not close that wound. “We heal when we acknowledge our weaknesses, when we acknowledge our failures, when we vow to address the things that matter, like equality and justice,” she said.

Later, when speaking with reporters from several media outlets, Murkowski said she is “struggling” with her support of Trump. “I have struggled with it for a long time,” Reuters and others reported.

Murkowski said Mattis’ letter showed thoughts that were “true and honest and necessary and overdue,” and his stance may provide support for Republicans who disagree with Trump’s tone and behavior. Mattis questioned Trump’s leadership and asserted that he is purposely trying to divide the nation for political gains. Murkowski told reporters that questions about who she will vote for “are distracting to the moment,” and she vowed to work with the Trump administration.

The executive order from the White House was being reviewed by sources reached June 4, with most not willing to comment on its legal effect or ability to spur investments in infrastructure.

The order directs multiple agencies to aid economic recovery in quick fashion and report on their progress to different branches of the White House within 30 days. “Agencies should take all reasonable measures to speed infrastructure investments and to speed other actions in addition to such investments that will strengthen the economy and return Americans to work, while providing appropriate protection for public health and safety, natural resources, and the environment, as required by law,” according to the order.

However, it later says emergency measures can be used to avoid requirements of NEPA, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act (CWA) and other protective regulations. The Army Corps of Engineers is directed to use emergency permitting provisions to the fullest extent possible, including nationwide permits under the CWA, even though such permits for new oil and natural gas pipelines have been put on hold by the courts.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has provided flexibility for agencies to comply with NEPA in emergency situations, including consultation with CEQ when actions may be needed with significant environmental effects without observing NEPA procedures, according to the order. Within 30 days, the heads of all agencies are to identify potential actions to facilitate economic recovery that may be subject to emergency treatment, statutory exemptions from NEPA or categorical exclusions under NEPA regulations.

By Tom Tiernan ttiernan@fosterreport.com

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