Democrats and Republicans eye working together on small-ball climate legislation

Source: By Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner • Posted: Monday, November 19, 2018

Members of both parties see opportunities in a divided Congress next year for bipartisan action on clean energy development, even if comprehensive legislation meant to combat climate change remains far away.

“My goal is to have a demonstrative body of work to reduce carbon emissions, and not just do messaging bills,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the Washington Examiner. “We have significant opportunities to pass legislation that would help bring down carbon emissions on a bipartisan basis.”

Democrats are eyeing a potential infrastructure package, which President Trump has also emphasized, as a key vehicle to achieve progress on clean energy.

Welch, along with Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who is expected to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on environment, outlined provisions they would support in an infrastructure bill.

In particular, they would favor: improving energy efficiency in publicly funded projects; modernizing the electricity grid to accommodate the use of more wind and solar; rebuilding transmission and distribution lines to make them more resilient to severe weather events and wildfires; accelerating the deployment of electric vehicle charging stations; and providing incentives for localities to purchase electric buses.

While Welch and Tonko would support major climate legislation like a carbon tax or cap and trade, they acknowledge achieving those goals is unrealistic for now, and are pushing their colleagues to support smaller efforts packaged in a way that can attract Republicans.

“We need an aggressive climate change agenda, and there are things we can do working across the aisle to move us toward our goals,” Tonko told the Washington Examiner. “You only have to look over your shoulder to recent history to see this committee has been among the leaders in achieving success stories in a bipartisan way.”

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a press release outlining her climate agenda this week that she wants an infrastructure investment plan to focus on clean energy and for it to include measures that “make our communities more resilient to the climate crisis.”

By that, she means bolstering climate change adaptation, or ways to limit the effects of rising sea levels, and higher floodwaters, by building flood walls and toughening development standards, for example.

Congress has recently quietly achieved progress in this area, passing a bill last month by bipartisan margins that increases funding for protecting homes and communities against hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.

Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a conservative clean energy group, notes that many of these measures, and others, enjoy broad Republican support, not just from moderate lawmakers who belong to the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which lost much of its GOP members in the midterms.

“A lot of head-on climate things like carbon taxes are only the domain of moderate Republicans,” Powell said. “But with clean energy innovation, there is a broad set of supportive folks who are significantly further to the Right.”

Powell’s group supports bipartisan initiatives that he says have good chances of passing in the next Congress that would make existing fossil fuel plants cleaner and nuclear energy more viable.

Congress last year approved a bill signed by Trump that extended and expanded an existing tax credit to help fund technologies that capture carbon emissions from power plants and store it underground.

Members of both parties are hoping the new Congress can pass a bill passed in March by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that would build on the tax credit by requiring the government to research carbon capture and utilization technologies that would trap carbon from industrial facilities and reuse it for commercial products. The legislation also would set up a program to incentivize the creation of technologies that can suck carbon directly out of the air.

That bill had wide-ranging sponsorship, including that of Sens. John Barrasso, the chairman of the Public Works Committee from the coal state of Wyoming, and Tom Carper of Delaware, the panel’s top Democrat, who is a leading advocate for policies to mitigate climate change.

There is also similar broad support for bills introduced in the House and Senate to help the struggling nuclear energy industry by encouraging the development of advanced nuclear reactors, a far-off technology that supporters say is more viable because it’s smaller, containing less fuel and energy, and would operate with less risk of accidents.

“Folks working on the issue of carbon mitigation have to be realistic to say there has to be a place for nuclear energy, which doesn’t emit any carbon,” said Barrasso, who is the co-author of a bill promoting advanced reactors co-sponsored by Murkowski, Corey Booker, D-N.J., and others.

“I am committed to working on things we can do in bipartisan way to actually make a difference,” Barrasso added in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

Republicans and Democrats are even talking about cooperating on clean energy before the new Congress begins, with some seeking, as part of a package of temporary tax breaks slated for re-upping, to extend the $7,500-per-vehicle tax credit for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles — keeping it alive for more years — and lifting the individual manufacturer cap.

Although some outside free-market groups oppose the tax breaks, many Republicans represent manufacturing states and districts that would benefit from the advanced vehicle economy.

“When we talk on a global scale about climate change and get stuck in a debate on whether the science is real or fake, you get nowhere,” Welch said. “But if you bring it down to a more granular level, a lot of Republicans are with you.”