Green groups wish Democrats had gone bigger with relief bill

Source: By Rachel Frazin, The Hill • Posted: Sunday, May 17, 2020

Environmentalists are lamenting the provisions in Democrats’ $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill slated for a vote Friday, arguing the House package is ambitious on several fronts but not climate and clean energy.

The environmental provisions in the bill include $1.5 billion in funding for states and tribes to help low-income households pay for drinking water services and another $1.5 billion to help low-income households cover their energy costs.

It also includes $50 million in grants to investigate the disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on communities facing environmental inequalities and $111 million to track species “that could pose a biohazard risk to human health.”

Green groups say that while they support those provisions and the overall bill, it doesn’t go far enough on pressing environmental issues.

Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director, said the legislation has “many important priorities for the country” but it “unfortunately leaves out COVID-19 related assistance that could save clean energy jobs.”

The environmental group 350 Action released a list of policies it would like to see in the stimulus legislation, namely blocking fossil fuel companies from receiving stimulus funding, making renewable energy investments and preventing construction of fossil fuel projects like pipelines.

In introducing the legislation Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats needed to “think big.”

“The chair of the Federal Reserve Bank has told us to ‘think big’ because interest rates are so low,” Pelosi said. “We intend to use those interest rates to bolster the American people.”

“We must ‘think big’ for the people now because if we don’t, it will cost more in lives and livelihood later,” she added. “Not acting is the most expensive course.”

Some environmental groups wish Democrats had thought bigger in crafting the measure.

“For Democrats and progressives to not lean into and stand up for emerging clean energy industries that are suffering right now, that’s a serious policy choice,” said Bracken Hendricks, co-founder of Evergreen, a new group aiming to push Congress and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden further left on climate issues.

“I strongly support…some of the provisions that are being discussed, but I don’t think that the level of ambition or urgency in the current package reflects the real urgency of the moment,” he added.

John Morton, who served as the White House senior director for energy and climate change during the Obama administration, told The Hill that the U.S. should be taking cues from countries like Canada, which is requiring companies that receive government aid to make annual reports on how their operations will affect the country’s climate goals.

“Thoughtful countries are using this next round of recovery and stimulus funds to support lower-carbon, more resilient industrial policy,” said Morton, who’s now a partner at the climate advisory and investment firm Pollination Group.

The push for more environmental provisions comes amid troubling news for the renewable industry. An analysis of government data published Wednesday estimated that nearly 600,000 jobs in the sector had been lost since the start of the pandemic.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) cited the job losses in calling for government assistance to the clean energy industry.

“The next #COVID19 package needs to include support for the clean energy sector, which has been devastated by the pandemic,” he tweeted Wednesday. “Our response can’t just be a reaction, it has to be an investment in the technologies & workers who will power this country’s future.”

Days before House Democrats unveiled their coronavirus legislation, known as the HEROES Act, Democratic lawmakers in both chambers introduced the ReWIND Act, which aims to block oil and gas companies from receiving loans under previous coronavirus response bills signed into law. The measure also would prevent the Trump administration from purchasing oil for an emergency stockpile and halt fossil fuel lease sales on federal lands.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the ReWIND Act’s Senate sponsor, told The Hill in a statement he was “disappointed that the ReWIND Act was not included” in the House coronavirus bill.

“We need limits and accountability so that relief gets to where it belongs,” he said, adding that he will “keep pushing to end the misuse of relief funds for fossil fuel bailouts.”

Natalie Mebane, associate director of U.S. policy for 350 Action, told The Hill that her group is happy with many provisions in the stimulus legislation but wishes it would have also included parts of the ReWIND Act.

“We are concerned that the Trump administration and many other members of Congress even are pushing very hard for fossil fuel bailouts,” she said.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), one of the lawmakers leading the push for the ReWIND Act in the House, said that “in a perfect world” he would like to see provisions from that bill in the latest rescue package.

“We’re still very much in triage mode and this HEROES Act is very much about that,” Huffman said. “It is about keeping the lights on in state and local government and hospitals and giving lifeline support in desperate circumstances.”