House Dems could revive climate panel, push renewables if they prevail

Source: George Cahlink and Arianna Skibell, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2016

If House Democrats can complete a long-shot-but-not-out-of-reach takeover of the House in next month’s election, expanding environmental protections and increasing the use of renewables are expected to be centerpieces of their legislative agenda.

“You can’t guarantee anything, but this is looking like it’s building up to be a wave election,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told E&E News in a recent interview.

Democrats would need to flip 30 seats to regain the majority, and most predictions now have them gaining around 20. In a highly volatile presidential race, however, Democrats are hoping sinking poll numbers for Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump will have an impact on down-ballot races.

Becerra highlighted several priorities of the green community that would likely be pursued by a Democratic majority, including the potential return of a select congressional committee dedicated to addressing global warming.

“I think so, it would be wise,” said Becerra, when asked about the prospects for reviving a version of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was set up under Democratic control from 2007 to 2010. He said that having a panel focused on climate change would make any action by Congress “more open and transparent for all stakeholders,” and that lawmakers could use field hearings to build public support for action.

House Republicans disbanded the select committee when they took over the House in 2011, four years after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) established it. While the panel lacked the authority to write legislation on its own, it played a major role in helping to draft the cap-and-trade legislation that passed the House in 2009.

If Democrats win the House, Pelosi, now minority leader, would become the first lawmaker since the late Rep. Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) more than 60 years ago to be re-elected to the post of speaker after losing the majority.

Pelosi said in a CNN interview over the weekend that climate change had been a “flagship” issue for her when she was speaker before and said she continues to believe it’s a “moral issue” to protect the planet.

House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Democrats on his committee have only recently started discussing the possibility of taking the House.

A top priority for his panel, he said, would be combating climate change. “I think we would tackle head-on the issue of climate change. And rely on science and facts to guide how we create adaptation on public lands for climate change and how we mitigate that going into the future,” he said.

House Democratic staffers believe global warming will get a lot of attention if their party regains control but concede moving any broad climate legislation would be tough.

“Even with a majority, it will likely be challenging to develop a consensus climate bill that could get majorities in both chambers,” said a Democratic staffer who works on coordinating energy and environment strategy.

The aide suggested Democrats may try to codify President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which he issued via a series of executive orders. Republicans, however, would almost surely oppose that effort, and federal courts are still reviewing the legality of many of the Obama administration’s regulatory moves.

Other green priorities

Becerra, who has close ties to the Hillary Clinton campaign, said he expects if she wins the White House she’ll offer a legislative proposal within her first 100 days that will focus on economic growth, which would include a major push for new infrastructure spending.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that one of the major infrastructure investments will be in clean energy,” said Becerra, noting Clinton has called for the United States to become the world’s “clean energy superpower.”

An aide said if lawmakers fail to agree on bipartisan energy legislation in the waning days of this Congress, there could be a renewed push next year to do energy efficiency and energy infrastructure legislation.

Democrats also could eye using the tax code to push renewable priorities, including possibly ending the scheduled phaseout of investment and production tax credits for certain energy technologies. They also might seek to expand those credits to cover technologies, like offshore wind production, that were not included when the ITC and PTC tax breaks were extended by five years in last December’s omnibus spending package, an aide said.

Becerra said he would push for Democrats to implement a carbon tax to help limit the pollutant most often linked to global warming. But, he said, he “does not know where [Clinton] will go” on a possible carbon tax, which would generate opposition from traditional energy producers.

Grijalva, who is expected to remain the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee regardless of who takes the House, said bedrock environmental and land preservation laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act, would no longer face threats of being watered down by Republicans.

“We wouldn’t be on the bashing agenda that has categorized the last six years,” Grijalva said, stressing that those bedrock laws need to be “updated” and not “destroyed.”

Grijalva said with Republicans in the majority, “our efforts have been to keep the worst from happening. And if they’re in the majority, that strategy doesn’t change.”

Grijalva said another priority would be boosting land and regulatory agency funding. “They have been squeezed tremendously,” he said.

Democratic aides said a Democratic House would be almost certain to restore some of the steep cuts Republicans have made to the U.S. EPA budget in recent years.

Democrats also could try to move ahead with some of the billions in funding proposed for the Obama administration’s Mission Innovation effort that would double research into clean energy over a decade. They’d also likely support efforts to back international climate change agreements, a move resisted by the GOP.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the Energy and Commerce Committee’s ranking member, who would be in line for the chairmanship if the Democrats take the majority, would likely make a push to update the Safe Drinking Water Act. Pallone has long had an interest in environmental health issues, and the water crisis in Flint, Mich., could give his push for stronger water protections some momentum, an aide said.

Pallone, whose state has more EPA Superfund sites than any in the nation, would also likely try to look for ways to speed up cleanup efforts and provide dedicated Superfund dollars.

Despite Democrats’ optimism on Capitol Hill — where more Democratic staffers than had been expected are taking vacation time to help out on campaigns this fall — a takeover is not yet being widely predicted. But regardless, Democrats are likely to gain more seats on committees and could force more compromises on legislation.

“The respective numbers close, and with that, [Republicans] are going to have to reach across the aisle,” Grijalva said.

Reporter Hannah Hess contributed.