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DEMOCRATS PRESSURE BIDEN ON SOLAR TARIFFS PROBE: Democratic senators are joining a mix of green energy industry groups and asking President Joe Biden to ensure a swift resolution to the Commerce Department’s circumvention investigation into solar imports from Asia — or else risk further hurting the viability of the growing industry.
A group of 22 senators, including Sens. Jacky Rosen and Kyrsten Sinema of top-five solar states Nevada and Arizona, wrote Biden today to request a preliminary determination out of concern that the investigation will hamper solar energy companies “as long as it continues,” Bloomberg reports.
Solar executives say the probe has already interrupted business, as we detailed last week, up to and including cancellation of cell and module orders from providers who don’t care to risk paying tariffs retroactively to April 1 if they are in fact introduced.
Lobbying by trade groups like the Solar Energy Industries Association looks to be moving the dial on the issue. SEIA had reps and member executives up on Capitol Hill just last week to pull strings.
The industry forthrightly frames the probe and potential for new tariffs in life-and-death terms for how much it could hike prices on cell and module imports, beyond disruptions they’re already facing.
By extension, they say, that means life or death for Biden’s policy goals on green energy and climate change mitigation.
To be sure, the standing antidumping petition and its immediate predecessor, posed by a group of anonymous manufacturers last fall, were already a priority of Rosen’s before this latest bit of activity from SEIA and others.
She warned Commerce in September that introducing tariffs on imports as the anonymous petitioners requested “would stall many ongoing and planned U.S. solar projects, negatively impacting every segment of the U.S. solar industry and resulting in significant job losses.”
What the Biden team is saying: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimando, who was also on the Hill last week to talk over the department’s budget before the Senate Commerce Committee, showed sympathy for the industry’s interest in a quick resolution to the probe but said she can’t do much about it.
“My hands are very tied,” she said when Rosen asked her for a preliminary determination. “I'm required by statute to investigate the claim that companies operating in other countries are trying to circumvent the duties and I'm required by statute to have a fulsome investigation.”
Raimando said the department commits to “moving as fast as possible, consistent with the statute to conduct that investigation” and told Rosen, “I understand you want certainty, but I have to follow the statute."
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EPA ISSUES E15 WAIVER: The EPA issued its emergency waiver for E15 gasoline on Friday in a bid to lower gasoline prices.
The waiver exempts all regions from regulations limiting sales of the ethanol-blended fuel between June and September, which are designed to limit smog.
EPA said in its announcement the waiver was issued “to counteract Russia’s unjustified, unprovoked, and unconscionable war against Ukraine and the profound impact on global and domestic energy markets."
Making E15 available all year is a priority of corn-state lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who introduced legislation last year to permanently exempt the fuel from the Reid vapor pressure regulations.
Speaking of corn: More E15 has pleased midwestern members of Congress, but frustrations persist over the administration’s retroactive amendment to the Renewable Fuel Standard’s ethanol blending obligations for 2020, which EPA lowered, citing the demand destruction wrought by COVID-19.
Meanwhile, refinery interests are lobbying for sustained reforms to the program in the other direction and frame their ask as a way to lower gasoline prices.
The Fueling American Jobs Coalition launched an ad campaign last month urging Biden to take action to insulate refiners from the high price of renewable identification numbers, claiming the RFS adds up to 30 cents per gallon of fuel.
EU MOVES TO ADOPT PHASED-IN RUSSIAN OIL BAN: The European Union pushed toward adopting a Russian oil embargo this weekend, with leaders expected to vote as early as this week on a plan to phase out all Russian crude imports by the end of 2022.
The plan is currently being drafted by the European Commission, with a finalized version expected as early as tomorrow. From there, it will be circulated to EU member states, whose leaders are slated to gather Wednesday to discuss the new measures.
New momentum for the effort came after Germany—the bloc’s economic powerhouse and largest importer of Russian crude—lifted its opposition to the embargo late last week, paving the way for the EU to take more punishing action.
“We are also pushing within the EU to now phase out oil together as Europe in the EU’s sixth sanctions package,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said yesterday in an interview with local broadcaster ARD.
The oil embargo is expected to be the linchpin of the EU’s sixth round of sanctions on Russia in response to its war in Ukraine. Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters the EU has been working “intensively” on crafting its latest sanctions package, which she said will likely include additional penalties on Russian individuals and banks, including Sberbank.
EU leaders are also weighing ways to soften the blow for Hungary and Slovakia, which remain deeply dependent on Russian oil. Those efforts include granting the two nations some form of exception or a longer period to transition to alternative suppliers—and their success in both countries is critical if the EU hopes to pass its embargo.
Senior Hungarian officials warned yesterday that they stood ready to veto any sanctions package that sought to ban Russian energy imports:
“Since such decisions require unanimity, it makes no sense for the commission to propose sanctions affecting natural gas and crude oil that would restrict Hungarian procurements,” Hungarian Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas said in an interview with local broadcast station HirTV.
Hours later, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs rebutted a report saying they had lifted their veto threat, writing on Facebook that Hungary’s position “hasn’t changed, we don’t support it.”
It’s unclear if assurances from EU leaders softened their stance: Since 27 EU member states must vote to approve the embargo, some leaders have sought to tamp down expectations on the timeline—cautioning that any draft embargo will likely require some finessing before it is ready for a final vote.
German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said today that there is “still no unity” on an oil ban within the bloc: “I don’t know whether an oil embargo is imminent,” he told reporters. “I hear different things and talk to my colleagues about different options. Other countries are not that far along and I think you have to respect that.”
ENERGY MINISTERS HOLD CRISIS TALKS: Meanwhile, all 27 EU energy ministers convened in Brussels today for crisis talks after Russia abruptly suspended its gas deliveries to Bulgaria and Poland, making good on Vladimir Putin’s threat to cut off its supply to any “unfriendly nations” who refused to pay in rubles.
Energy ministers are hoping to draft clearer guidance on whether state-owned companies can keep buying the Russian fuel without breaching the EU's sanctions. Ministers are also discussing ways to secure alternative gas supplies and bolster its storage before winter, Reuters reports.
BUILD BACK BETTER, REDUX: A small, bipartisan group of senators is slated to convene tonight to discuss a possible path forward on passing a climate and energy spending bill. The talks are a last-ditch effort to revive action on stalled legislation before both parties pivot to the midterm elections this fall. The group first met last week.
Expectations management: Questions remain as to how negotiators will appease Sen. Joe Manchin, who is leading the talks alongside Sen. Lisa Murkowski, but who is also responsible for single-handedly tanking Biden’s partisan social welfare and climate spending bill last fall. Any new package would also have to pair priorities on U.S. energy security with progressives’ goals on fighting climate change and investing in clean energy.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week on some of the actions Manchin might require before he throws his support behind a new bill, including using federal funds to spur domestic fossil fuel production and helping European allies build out new LNG terminals to accept more U.S. imports.
“I think we will have a better idea of what people are considering, and more people have been asked to provide ideas through this, and then put it all on the table,” Sen. Kevin Cramer told reporters last week. “And then maybe we can see if there’s something of a skeleton.”
The view from progressives: “What I worry about is doing something that is not significant, and people will say ‘We’ve dealt with climate,’” said Sen. Bernie Sanders. “My perception is that there are very few Republicans who are prepared to tackle that crisis in a way that’s appropriate.”
Others have taken a decidedly more bipartisan approach: “It’s time to cut a deal and get it done on climate that we can put into reconciliations,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, according to Politico. “And continue broader talks in multiple directions.”
NATURAL GAS PRICES STILL STEEP: Natural gas futures are up again today, having opened at $7.41 per MMBtu, and remain at their highest levels since 2008 after surpassing that mark last month.
Analysts have pointed to a mix of factors for keeping prices elevated, including the perseverance of cold temperatures.
Gas demand was up by 2.8 billion cubic feet per day on the year this April due especially to higher residential and commercial demand, according to a market report from the American Gas Association.
Storage is also a factor, per AGA: “Current working gas levels in underground storage stand 21 percent below year-ago levels and 17 percent under the five-year average.”
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TUESDAY | MAY 3
12 p.m. Advanced Energy Economy will hold a webinar featuring FERC Chairman Richard Glick titled “Making Connections: How to Get Transmission Built for an Advanced Energy Economy.”
WEDNESDAY | MAY 4
10 a.m. 192 Dirksen The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development will hold a hearing on the Energy Department’s budget for FY2023.