House Democrats don’t touch oil and gas company aid in new coronavirus bill

Source: By Dino Grandoni with Paulina Firozi, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2020

House Democrats unveiled a huge, new coronavirus relief package that would inject more than $3 trillion into state and local governments, health systems and other parts of the economy rocked by the coronavirus pandemic.

But absent are any new policies to boost renewable forms of energy and wean the country off of fossil fuels that could gum up passing the massive package expected to receive a vote on Friday.

Green groups and Democrats on the party’s left flank are growing increasingly frustrated their environmental priorities are being sidelined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her lieutenants when trying to stabilized the economy with their sprawling 1,800-page bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (Saul Loeb/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The activists appreciate efforts to ensure electric and water utilities don’t shut off service and to send a second round of stimulus checks to those who need them. But they are irked the bill doesn’t turn off the spigot of aid money being distributed to ailing oil and gas companies.

“Oil and gas lobbyists have thrown the book at Congress asking for tax breaks, additional subsidies and loans,” said John Noël, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA. “Congress needs to shut the door in their faces.”

The Sierra Club, one of Washington’s biggest green groups, struck a similarly tone. “A final package must include guardrails that protect against any additional handouts to fossil fuel executives,” said Melinda Pierce, the group’s legislative director.

On the flip side, Myron Ebell, a longtime climate skeptic and former head of President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team, said it was “good news” the bill in “contains no green energy boondoggles.”

House Democrats aren’t trying to stop oil, gas and coal companies from getting coronavirus relief.

A group of liberal House members, including Reps. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), had pushed unsuccessfully for including language blocking fossil-fuel firms from getting emergency aid meant for small and midsize businesses coming from the Federal Reserve.

“It would be unconscionable to bail out big oil and gas corporations with money intended to help families, workers and small businesses survive this global pandemic,” Barragán said.

Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.). (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Associated Press)

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the same measure in the Senate, said he was “disappointed” to see it not included in the House bill.

“The last thing we should be doing is diverting funding from urgent response efforts to prop up polluters that threaten our future,” he said.

Some oil and gas companies struggling with a historic crash in energy prices stand to gain after the Fed recently loosened rules around which companies are eligible to take out emergency loans.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in an interview Tuesday with Bloomberg TV that the administration “worked very closely with the Federal Reserve” to make adjustments to the program to allow more oil companies to access the money. In response, the Fed said its intent was to expand the program broadly and not for any specific sector.

House Democrats also rebuffed efforts to boost renewables.

In another lobbying push, two renewable energy groups, the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association, asked lawmakers to bolster tax credits that wind turbine and solar array builders rely on to underwrite construction in the next round of stimulus. But House Democrats left those tax credits untouched in the latest package.

“We will continue working with Congress and other renewable energy leaders to find solutions to the specific challenges COVID-19 is causing our members,” said Tom Kiernan, chief executive of the wind lobbying group.

In a somewhat surprising move, the Trump administration said last week it is preparing to throw to renewable companies one of the lifelines they had been asking for — extra time to meet construction deadlines to qualify for the tax breaks.

Democrats and Republicans share little common ground on energy issues.

In stark contrast with liberal Democrats, President Trump has pushed explicitly to save “our great oil companies.”

And the last time congressional Democrats pushed for expanding tax breaks for alternative sources of energy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) excoriated them for trying “to dust off the Green New Deal,” a much more sweeping proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg)

Pelosi and her top lieutenants assembled the bill without input from the GOP-led Senate or the White House, and “Republicans rejected the legislation even before they saw it,” my colleague Erica Werner reports. “This is not a time for aspirational legislation,” McConnell said.

Yet for liberals, the bill is not all bad news.

Crucially, the legislation aims to block utility companies from shutting off service to customers struggling to pay their bills.

“We’re heartened that the House has moved to protect millions of suffering families,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program.

The bill would also funnel $1.5 billion into help low-income households pay for energy bills. Another $50 million would be distributed by the Environmental Protection Agency in environmental justice grants.

Many states and major investor-owned utilities have imposed their own moratoriums on disconnections during the pandemic. But House Democrats say they want to give low-income Americans extra assurance by etching those restrictions into federal law.

“Now more than ever, Americans need to feel confident that their access to safe water and reliable power will continue uninterrupted, and this legislation provides that peace of mind,” said Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), three leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

House Democrats also want to try to stop the next pandemic by empowering the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restrict potentially infectious animals from being trafficked into the country.

Disease researchers say the novel coronavirus’s original host was almost certainly a bat, and the virus may have hopped through another species on its way to infecting humans.