McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies Advisory: This Week in Washington -- August 21, 2015
Obama takes on natural gas
President Obama’s aggressive climate change plan has a new target: the natural gas industry.
On Tuesday, the White House proposed new rules limiting emissions of methane and other pollutants from the oil and natural gas industry, part of a strategy to cut methane emissions by up to 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2025. The rules -- which will only apply to new and modified gas wells -- are meant to address a harmful byproduct of the natural gas boom.
Methane accounts for roughly 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas pollution according to 2012 statistics, with nearly a third from the extraction and transport of oil and natural gas. But even in its smaller amount, methane is still a potent polluter; pound for pound, methane traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
The increasing reliance on natural gas in the U.S. has divided environmentalists. As a power source, it burns more cleanly than coal and has contributed to a downturn in domestic emissions. But it carries with it concerns about water and air pollution from development and fracking, and many no longer see it as a viable bridge between coal and renewables, despite its availability and low cost.
According to EPA, the proposed regulations are projected to reduce between 340,000 and 400,000 short tons of methane in 2025, the equivalent of 7.7 to 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. The EPA is also proposing to reduce between 170,000 to 180,000 tons of pollutants known as “volatile organic compounds” that contribute to the production of ozone, or ground-level smog.
The proposal requires that companies adopt technology to find and repair leaks, capture natural gas from fracked oil wells and limit emissions from its pneumatic pumps and other transmission equipment.
The rules announced Tuesday are part of a strategy announced in January to reduce methane pollution 40 to 45 percent by 2025, which will come through several agencies. As part of that strategy, EPA last month proposed a voluntary program to get oil and gas companies to reduce methane emissions.
It's also part of the U.S. climate pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. The methane announcement comes two weeks after the White House announced regulations cutting carbon emissions from the nation's power sector, the centerpiece of the administration's climate agenda.
But the natural gas industry says that the new methane regulations are going to be an unnecessarily costly burden as a goal that companies are trying to meet already, and could put a dent in the surge in natural gas production.
Redistricting: An unlikely Boehner ally
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) has an unlikely ally – redistricting. Three of the most outspoken conservative opponents of the speaker find their political futures under threat this summer as Republican state lawmakers prepare to redraw local congressional maps.
Redistricting efforts in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, could result in Reps. Dan Webster, Dave Brat, and Mark Meadows drawn out of their jobs before the 2016 election.
There's a long way to go before any new maps are put into place: Florida's and Virginia's legislatures are in special sessions to redraw their maps after court decisions, and the Florida lawmakers have specific instructions not to take politics into consideration. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Supreme Court is still preparing to hear arguments in a gerrymandering lawsuit. But already, there have been enough signs to scare anti-establishment conservatives.
In Florida's new draft congressional map, Webster's district absorbs thousands of Democratic voters and turns into a majority-minority seat; Webster, who ran for speaker against Boehner in 2015, told legislators that the new district would be "impossible to win."
Many Republicans in Virginia would like to do the same to Brat's district as they prepare a court-ordered redistricting little more than a year after Brat defeated ex-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary. Brat also voted against Boehner for speaker this winter.
In North Carolina, the GOP congressional delegation is packed with members who have experience and connections in the state legislature that may redraw their map—advantages that Meadows, who recently filed a motion to remove Boehner from power, does not have.
Webster himself told National Journal he doesn't blame state legislators or think they're out to get him. In a state with an anti-gerrymandering amendment to the constitution, other factors are just working against the onetime speaker candidate.
In Virginia, a court directed lawmakers to shift African-American voters out of Rep. Bobby Scott's heavily Democratic district, leaving the neighboring Brat as an appealing target.
Ironically, Brat's saving grace could end up being Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who can sign or veto whatever plan the legislature approves.
In North Carolina, Meadows said he has faith that the process will be fair. "I trust the state legislature and the North Carolina Supreme Court, both of which have my admiration and respect," Meadows said.
Obama green lights arctic drilling
President Obama’s second term has been loudly lauded by many environmental activists pleased with the president’s use of executive authority to press a broad environmental agenda, especially when it comes to climate change. This week, however, the administration got crosshairs with many in the environmental community after greenlighting Shell’s Arctic drill program. The move clears the way for the oil giant to resume its search for northern oil.
Final approval came after a safety vessel arrived in the area where Shell plans on drilling. Current regulations prohibit drilling deep in the Arctic without the presence of a safety vessel.
Shell plans on drilling some 70 miles off of the Alaskan coast, but environmentalists fear that a large spill could be almost impossible to clean up due to cold water temperatures, which do not support micro-organisms that could break oil down, and the sea ice shelf, which could trap oil under it.
It’s not just environmentalists who oppose the move. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton broke with the administration and came out against the move, saying it was too big of a gamble. In a tweet, Clinton wrote, “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”
President Obama will likely hear from opponents of the drilling when he heads to Alaska later this month on a trip intended to highlight the effects of climate change on communities in the Arctic.
The Ashley Madison hack is more than just embarrassing
It was a bad week for people looking to cheat on their spouses – hackers publicly released the personal information of roughly 33 million users of the cheating site Ashley Madison. Aside from the obvious public embarrassment, many experts are saying the incident underscores the serious cybersecurity threats we face.
With the information made public, hackers can and likely will leverage the database to get into other password-protected sites and systems.
And since the Ashley Madison data dump also included thousands of government email addresses, criminals now have access to personal information about military and intelligence officials.
The technique is simple but effective: many websites allow users to access restricted areas without a password if they can provide multiple pieces of personal information to verify their identity. Using a database like the one from Ashley Madison, stitched together with some of the countless other databases of stolen information that are easily accessible on the dark corners of the Internet, a hacker can assemble a fairly complete snapshot of an Internet user's profile that can then be used to bypass security steps on a website or computer system.
That's likely how Russian hackers gained entry into more than 300,000 U.S. taxpayers' records on the Internal Revenue Service website earlier this year. The intruders accurately answered identity-based questions about those taxpayers to gain access to their tax history and IRS transcripts, and used that information to file more than $50 million in fraudulent tax returns.
The Ashley Madison hack revealed only relatively basic information—things like names, online usernames, street addresses, phone numbers, and the last four digits of payment cards—but even those seemingly innocuous records could be enough for hackers.
Other hacks, like the breach of more than 20 million individuals' records at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), have compromised much more sensitive pieces of information. Some of the information accessed in the OPM attacks included Social Security numbers, financial and health history, and even more than a million fingerprint files.
Experts say the spoils of the OPM breaches have not appeared for sale or for free on the Internet, likely because the hackers, who U.S. officials say were tied to the Chinese government, would rather keep the information for their own use.
But other large-scale hacks, like the breaches at health insurance companies Anthem and Premera, also included sensitive personal information. Soon after large hacks like these, databases of stolen information usually begin to pop up on online marketplaces for would-be hackers to purchase. A Quartz investigation found that the going rate for a complete stolen identity on the Internet is about $20.
But while the average Ashley Madison user should be worried that his or her information, now public, could make identity fraud easier for a hacker to pull off, a subset of Ashley Madison users could be in an even riskier position.
A preliminary look at the Ashley Madison data dump revealed that about 10,000 emails belonged to U.S. officials, including employees of the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency.
Red state Democrats boost Iran deal prospects
After a series of high profile defections on the Democratic side of the partisan aisle, the prospects for the president's nuclear deal with Iran are getting a boost from red state Democrats.
This week, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), both of whom represent traditionally Republican-leaning states, announced they would vote to support the controversial deal.
While a handful of northeastern Democrats - a constituency that President Obama can usually count on - have come out against the deal, the growing support among more centrist and red state Democrats is a good sign for the supporters of the agreement.
Supporters and opponents of the Iran deal are focusing their efforts on a handful of undecided Democratic Senators including Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Michael Bennett (D-CO).
So far, 26 Democrats have announced their support for the president's agreement with Iran, leaving the president just 8 votes shy of the 34 he needs in the Senate. The president's prospects look even stronger in the House where Democrats are more united in support of Obama.
Google refuses to turn over emails
Earlier this month, three aides to Senator and presidential hopeful Rand Paul (R-KY) were indicted in a supposed pay-for-endorsement scheme revolving around Rand's father, Ron Paul, and his race for the GOP nomination in 2012.
Jesse Benton, one of the aides at the center of the scandal, has refused to turn over emails to the FBI. Over a year ago, after refusing to turn them over, the FBI got a search warrant that allowed them access to Benton's emails without his cooperation. Unfortunately for the FBI, Benton has a Gmail account and Google's policy is to notify users when their account has become the subject of a search warrant. Once notified, Benton filed a motion to block the search warrant and Google immediately stopped cooperating with the FBI.
Last week, a judge ruled that the FBI had a right to the emails, but Benton again refused to turn the emails over and Google, again, sided with Benton.
The government is now seeking to hold Google in contempt if they fail to comply with the order and turn over the emails.
The battle between Google, Benton, and the government is at the center of a legal debate about just how specific or broad email search warrants should be. Benton says he has turned over more than 50,000 pages of emails, but that his Gmail account contained both professional and private emails. The government claims they are entitled to all of the emails. So far, Google has sided with Benton, saying they will not comply with search warrants that are "overly broad."
Florida 10th Congressional District: State Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-FL) announced she will run for Rep. Dan Webster's (R-FL) seat, joining former Orlando police chief and 2012 challenger Val Demings (D-FL) in the Democratic primary.
Illinois 13th Congressional District: Physician David Gill, a four-time Democratic candidate for Congress, said he will challenge Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) as an independent in 2016. Ironically, Gill may have lost in 2012 due to the presence of an independent candidate. He lost to Davis by less than 1 percentage point that cycle.
New York 18th Congressional District: Former Rep. Nan Hayworth (R) said she will not run for Congress again in 2016.
Maryland: Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is leading Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) in the race for the Democratic nomination in Maryland's Senate race, according to an internal poll released by her campaign. Edwards had 42 percent support to Van Hollen's 37 percent support in a telephone poll of 600 likely voters conducted by Global Strategy Group. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Illinois: State Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-IL), a former NFL player, plans to enter the Senate race.
Louisiana: Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy (R-LA) is reportedly eyeing a run for the U.S. Senate.
North Carolina: Former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) and former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D-NC) both appear on the verge of entering the Senate race. This could set up an interesting battle for the Democratic nomination that would pit a centrist Democrat (Shuler) versus a more traditional progressive (Ross).
Ohio: Americans for Prosperity announced they will spend $1.4 million on TV ads attacking former Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH).
Indiana: Democratic state Sen. Karen Tallian (D-IN) dropped out of Indiana's gubernatorial race on Monday, leaving John Gregg (D-IN) the only Democrat running to take on GOP Gov. Mike Pence next year. Tallian's withdrawal from the race follows Glenda Ritz (D-IN) dropping out earlier this month to run for another term as state schools chief. Both candidates faced an uphill battle against the fundraising power Gregg has demonstrated early in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Vermont: State House Speaker Shap Smith (D-VT) announced his candidacy for governor.
Rick Perry (R-TX): Former Governor Rick Perry denied reports this week that he was preparing to withdraw from the race.
Carly Fiorina (R-CA): Despite a bump in the polling since the FOX News debate, former HP executive Carly Fiorina may still miss the cut for the prime time portion of the next debate hosted by CNN because the cable news network will be using polls taken before and after the FOX debate to determine the top 10.
Donald Trump (R-NY): GOP front-runner Donald Trump unveiled his immigration plan this week. The plan calls for an end to birthright citizenship, the building of a wall on the southern border, and the deportation of all illegals and their families.
Ben Carson (R-MD): Neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s rally in Phoenix this week drew 12,000 supporters, a sign of growing support for the longshot candidate who has risen in the polls since the FOX News debate.
Hillary Clinton (D-NY): Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton had a rough week as questions continue to swirl about her use of a private e-mail server while serving as Secretary of State. Clinton’s general election poll numbers have taken a hit as a result, but her standing among Democratic primary voters remains strong.
A LOOK AHEAD
The House and Senate are in Recess
WASHINGTON BY THE NUMBERS
14.6 - That's the percentage of donors to Rand Paul's presidential campaign who also contributed to Ron Paul's 2012 bid.
$15 million – The amount in tax credits approved by a Missouri board this week aimed at building a new riverfront football stadium in downtown St. Louis in hopes of keeping the Rams from moving to Los Angeles.
57 - The percentage of Wisconsin voters who disapprove of the job Scott Walker (R-WI) is doing as Governor.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
"Like with a cloth or something?" – Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY), when asked if she tried to wipe the server that housed her emails.
"Short version: No one should ever drop out." -- 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), on the effects of personal super PACs.
"We don't get no respect. Why are we the Rodney Dangerfield of early states?" -- Political analyst Jon Ralston, on Nevada's place in the presidential primary process.
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