Energy and Commerce plan on its way, but details still hazy

Source: By Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 8, 2019

Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats are hoping to produce draft legislation to address climate change across the U.S. economy in the coming weeks, but a hearing yesterday showed they’re still in a sticky political conundrum.

An Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee hearing yesterday capped off weeks of work focused on decarbonizing various sectors of the U.S. economy — from transportation to electric power to manufacturing. The panel is expecting more work on the issue after the holiday break.

The focus yesterday was on carbon pricing, which subcommittee Chairman Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) said should be the centerpiece of an economywide plan to address climate change.

But while E&C Democrats pledged over the summer to develop legislation to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, they have plenty of GOP opposition and few details as of yet about how, exactly, they want to price carbon.

Tonko said they’re hoping to roll out a “100 by 50” proposal either directly before or after the holidays, but it’s likely to be more framework than passable legislation.

“We’re going to need more time to develop some of the more specifics, but it will be a good framework that will acknowledge all the areas of statute that need to be addressed, what our goals are and begin to provide for some of the scripting for the language in the statute,” Tonko told reporters after the hearing.

And Republicans on the panel are already sounding political warning signals, despite overtures on Capitol Hill in recent months from conservative groups pushing for carbon pricing.

Subcommittee ranking member John Shimkus (R-Ill.) warned that Democrats lost the House after passing cap-and-trade and health care reform legislation a decade ago, adding that energy consumers could dole out similar consequences for a new carbon pricing push.

“For anyone to think that consumers are not going to be price conscious in this debate, I would just say a word of warning,” Shimkus said in his opening statement.

Full committee ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) similarly pointed to the “yellow vests” protests in France over the country’s gas tax hikes last year.

Democrats, wary of those political forces, have largely framed the 116th Congress as a drafting period for climate legislation they hope to enact with a Democratic White House in 2021.

House leaders guided a symbolic climate bill through the House last year with promises for more, but lawmakers generally have tamped down any talk of passing sweeping carbon pricing legislation in the immediate future.

‘We’re kidding ourselves’

Still, the witnesses at yesterday’s subcommittee hearing provided some guidance on what to expect.

Noah Kaufman, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said a starting carbon tax of $25 to $35 per ton would be sufficient to meet U.S. Paris climate agreement goals, but the price should be higher for steeper emissions pathways.

A $50-per-ton starting price would slash net emissions 39% to 46% below 2005 levels in the first decade, Kaufman said in his written testimony.

While the scale of climate policy is often daunting, “don’t let this complexity distract you from actions that could really move the needle,” Kaufman told the panel.

Meanwhile, Tim Profeta, director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, laid out a proposal for a comprehensive federal-state partnership that would involve giving states flexibility to meet federal emissions goals.

Republicans nonetheless continued to say that the focus should be on energy innovation and emissions in the developing world, where countries looking to raise their economic prospects are likely to deploy cheap fossil fuels.

Cost burdens on U.S. consumers from a carbon price could be for nothing if emissions continue rising abroad, Shimkus said.

But Democrats and witnesses said yesterday that innovation policy won’t be enough because there has to be a price signal to get new low-carbon technology into the market.

“I certainly appreciate the point that we need to develop new technologies,” Kaufman said. “But if we think that will lead to reduced emissions by itself, then I think we’re kidding ourselves.”