House climate advocate is ‘not writing fossil fuels off’

Source: Edward Klump, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2019

HOUSTON — Rep. Lizzie Fletcher is walking a fine line between calling for climate action and defending the industries that fuel the Lone Star State.

On Feb. 25, the first-term Texas Democrat gave a nod to an all-of-the-above energy strategy while applauding a new solar project with local ties, calling Houston “the energy capital of the world.”

Two days later, her office released opening remarks from the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment, which Fletcher chairs.

“As science has established, climate change is real, it’s happening, and it’s caused primarily by human activity,” Fletcher said.

Welcome to life as the representative for Texas’ 7th District, a slice of Greater Houston where oil and gas jobs shape many lives but President Trump and efforts to bash climate science don’t enjoy widespread support.

The area includes energy company offices, well-educated residents and a good deal of diversity. Voters in the district went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and were affected by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey the following year (Energywire, Sept. 12, 2018). Back in the 1960s, the late George H.W. Bush was elected to represent the district, also known as CD-7.

Fletcher won the district last year in part because of anti-Trump sentiment and support for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Democratic Senate bid, according to Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“To continue to win in CD-7, Lizzie Fletcher needs independents, conservative Democrats and some Republicans to vote for her,” Jones said. “And the quickest way to lose that support is by affecting people’s pocketbooks.”

That means it doesn’t do Fletcher any good to be linked to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jones said, because the Green New Deal spearheaded by the New York congresswoman is “toxic” in Fletcher’s district.

In a statement, a Fletcher aide cited the energy industry’s role in technological advances, saying the Texas congresswoman believes it’s “important to hear from experts in the field about innovation and craft technology-neutral policies that aid in the continued development of all kinds of technologies.”

Fletcher joined other members of the Texas delegation in seeking progress on disaster funds for the state, and she questioned why NASA’s assistance reportedly was turned down by regulators after Harvey (E&E News PM, March 7).

Fletcher, 44, spoke recently with E&E News by phone from Washington about energy, Houston and her role in Congress:

Is there room in the Democratic caucus for a pro-energy member at this moment in time?

I think that there is. In fact, I am a member of the New Democrat Coalition, which is, as you probably know … a centrist, pro-business, pro-trade, pro-growth and progressive socially caucus. And I think that we are all interested here in what our energy future looks like, and I think that everyone has a role to play.

I do feel like energy is what we do in Texas’ 7th Congressional District, and so it’s really important that we make our voice heard on those issues.

One of the things I want to be sure is understood is that we care just as much about our planet and our energy future as anyone else and that we are committed to figuring out our shared problems when it comes to climate and our energy future. And I think it’s really important for people to know that.

What do you think about energy and all of the above?

Well, I think that what we’ve seen in Texas is that there are different ways to generate and deliver energy. And Texas was an early investor, as you know, I’m sure, in wind energy and really has led the way, and that Texas is the leading producer of wind energy in the country.

Certainly the increase … in natural gas over the last decade has made us more energy-independent, it’s brought down costs.

And I think as we look toward the future we have to think realistically about what it is that we’re going to be able to accomplish and how are we going to … meet our energy needs. And I think that that means a diversity of energy sources, and I think that that’s generally what Texans support.

You hear natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it does have emissions. You see it playing a role, at least?

Yeah, I think natural gas plays an important role. It is a much cleaner fuel. And you know, there are some challenges especially with methane emissions that are manageable.

Where do you come down on the Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal right now isn’t actual legislation. It’s a resolution, and it covers a lot of ground. In general, I think that it’s great to have a lot of ideas and a lot of discussion about all of the range of possibilities and options.

But I’m really focused on gathering the data to come up with a policy that can be more of a legislative solution, and that comes from listening to a lot of experts through the Science Committee. We’re also talking about some of these same issues in our Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as we think about the infrastructure needs we’re going to have for power delivery and for the grid and for upgrades.

All sorts of things are really connected here, and so, you know, I might be a little bit more focused on the how.

I do think it’s good to bring everybody into the process.

You’re not endorsing the Green New Deal at this time?

No, I’m not endorsing the Green New Deal. It’s kind of a value statement from the people who have … put it out. I think that it’s good for them to share their views.

I’m working on gathering the information from my own constituents, from experts in the industry, from experts in academia, from public policymakers. What is a feasible plan? What are achievable targets? And what is our goal?

I think we all want to leave the Earth better than we found it, and right now that looks like a real challenge for us.

You’re not writing fossil fuels off at this time?

I’m not writing fossil fuels off at this time, and I think one thing that’s important is to understand how … integrated they are into our lives. But I think that they will be a part of our energy delivery system for a long time.

We need to work together on addressing what that looks like and what the mix is in the future.

Let’s talk climate change. You had an opening statement on the Environment Subcommittee. I wanted to ask how that plays in your district.

People in my district believe in climate change. They believe that it’s happening, and they want to do something about it. And I think it’s important to know that people who are involved in the industry are not questioning the science of climate change. And I think it’s really important that we go back to listening to the scientists.

The issue there, to me, is: How do we all tackle the problem together?

People at all of the majors and many of the … energy industry companies that are headquartered in my district or that are in the region, they are all working on various programs, technologies, things that they can do to address climate change.

Do you consider this a red district, a blue district, a purple district?

I’ve lived in the district nearly all of my life, and I think what we have are a lot of thoughtful voters who want to be sure that their values are being reflected in Washington.

What I’ve found as a candidate, and I think it’s true as a member, is that you can’t make assumptions about where people fall on any particular issue, but that what they want to see more than anything is a government at whatever level — federal, state or local — that is efficient, that isn’t … overly burdensome but that is doing things that are helpful.

And they want our government to be ethical. And I think that as we looked at the 2018 election, there were a lot of concerns about each of those areas of government, whether it was the staffing of the administration and the agencies or the lack thereof, or whether it’s concerns that people had about what they were seeing in the White House.

There are a whole lot of people who consider themselves in the middle. I think that’s where the majority of the country is, and I think that’s why it’s important that districts like ours have a voice in Congress.

I wanted to ask you about Houston. Are you concerned at all about funding delays? Do you feel like Houston’s ready for the next big hurricane or flooding situation?

I am concerned about the delays in funding. It’s something that I’ve worked in a bipartisan way with my colleagues from the delegation up here to voice our concerns. Right now, there’s a lot of money that’s tied up at [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] while they’re writing the rules about how the hazard mitigation grant funding is going to be distributed and what it means.

I think that we have a lot of good plans in place. I think that it’s good that Harris County voters approved the bond back in August to get projects moving (Greenwire, Aug. 27, 2018). And I think that a lot of good work has been done in terms of planning, identifying problem areas, learning lessons from the last big storm.

But we have a lot of major infrastructure projects that we need to take on that take money. And until we can get that money to Houston, we will continue to face challenges of being prepared from an infrastructure level.

You went after then-Rep. John Culberson [R-Texas] over a lack of flood planning. How do you balance expectations with pushing to make things better but that it will take time?

I think that my criticism was of priorities. It wasn’t necessarily of results, but it was of making sure that our member of Congress is working for our district.

Certainly, some of these massive infrastructure projects take many, many years, and of course they have to be sequenced and done in a way that makes sense.

I’m doing everything I can do here to advocate for what we need.

This interview has been edited and condensed.