Congressional Appetite for Climate Measures Assessed During Clean Energy Week

This article appears as published in Foster Report No. 3267

In a week with climate protests on the streets of major cities around the world, policy leaders discussed the steps needed in Washington, D.C., to tackle climate change and the bipartisan support for clean energy resources.

The Republican majority in the Senate could be viewed as a challenge for those gathered during Clean Energy Week events, but GOP lawmakers offered a sense of hope that the new bipartisan climate caucus in the Senate can bring Republican members into the discussion on climate issues. The three Republican members of the caucus, Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, spoke at different Clean Energy Week events.

The goal of the caucus is to find common ground on climate issues among Republicans and Democrats, as Republicans risk being left out of legislative plans and feeling alienated by businesses that favor clean energy, Braun and Romney said during a policymakers symposium September 26. Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told a Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) forum September 25 that she would join the caucus.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) approached Braun to form the caucus and Braun agreed because he supports innovation, cooperation for solutions and conservation of natural resources. He believes there are more “closet conservationists” in the Republican party willing to be involved in legislative plans on climate change. “They just need to be stirred” to action and step out of their comfort zone to reach agreements with Democrats, Braun said.

In the current political scene, “everything gets polarized” and divisive on Capitol Hill, Braun said, asserting that clean energy can present wins for both political parties.

In his own state of Indiana, coal-fired power generation is dropping but still at about 70% of the generation. Natural gas is the bridge fuel to move energy usage toward higher portions of renewable resources. Some people may not like the methane emissions and fracking element tied to natural gas use, but it is the best option at this point, Braun said.

Romney said “the politics have to change” for Congress to take the big steps needed for arresting climate change, and he believes that change will come eventually. Having three Republican members in a climate caucus out of 53 GOP senators is not an enormous achievement, but it’s a start, he said.

Right now, being in favor of steps to address climate change is not a beneficial political position for many Republicans. But if groups like the Business Roundtable start prompting lawmakers to take positions on climate change, the dynamic can be shifted. If the people that control the purse strings move on these topics, it will resonate with lawmakers, Romney said.

Leaders from several businesses outside of the clean energy sector spoke on panels about their company commitments to sustainability and reducing their carbon footprints. Those include Anheuser-Busch, Proctor & Gamble and Lime electric scooters, all of which are taking steps for using cleaner energy because consumers are demanding it.

Individual company steps are great, but too often “trade associations and front groups” oppose legislative plans to address climate change, said Sen. Shelden Whitehouse (D-R.I.). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a position that is out of line with much of its members and the National Association of Manufacturers obstructs measures, Whitehouse said.

He did not mention that the Chamber on September 24 formed a task force on climate action. Announced at an event in New York City, the task force will help the Chamber understand mechanisms and internal processes that companies are using to tackle climate change. The task force will help the Chamber inform its approach to legislation and other policy proposals, said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the Chamber.

“By establishing this group, the Chamber will have a formal process to continually engage companies across our broad membership on this important issue,” Bradley said in a statement.

Whitehouse did refer to several pieces of legislation that are making progress in the clean energy space, including those dealing with carbon capture technologies, advanced nuclear reactors, electric vehicles,  and coastal infrastructure to deal with sea levels rising.

Having a price on carbon could be the most effective measure to head off a “climate calamity,” because it would provide companies with incentives to address pollution and their carbon footprint, Whitehouse said.

Romney also referred to a carbon tax approach that has gained support from Shell, ExxonMobil, and others in the energy sector. Romney said he supported having the U.S. in the group of countries working on the Paris Climate Accord, because if the U.S. were to adopt a carbon tax, it would have more of an impact if other nations do the same thing.

In the House of Representatives, where Democrats are in the majority, lawmakers hope to see a clean energy revolution accelerated, said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). Passing a comprehensive climate bill is not possible in this Congress, but “I see room for progress” with incremental steps that can be included in legislation that must be passed in the coming months, Tonko said. “I believe we can work together” and build a consensus to bring fresh ideas into the policy debates, Tonko said.

A legislative plan based on science and data, not politics, can promote U.S. competitiveness, reduce emissions and prompt infrastructure investment. “We have to go beyond taxes,” Tonko said.

The divisive nature of the Green New Deal (GND) was touched on by Rep. Matt Gaetz (D-Fla.) and Romney. The extreme elements of the GND are a winning proposition for Republicans, and Democrats in the Senate would not vote on the measure, showing how “toxic” some of the steps are for mainstream voters, Romney said. Instead of pursuing measures that only benefit one political party, “we need to find things that are a win-win for both sides,” he said.

Gaetz said the GND was not intended to be a policy plan but to foster discussion. Some of the measures contained in it would harm the U.S. economy and increase global carbon emissions, leading to counterproductive debates in Congress, he said.

A more realistic approach to climate change is needed, and Gaetz referred to his Green Real Deal plan that draws upon resources and assets in abundance in the U.S. Modernizing the power grid to accommodate more renewable resources, using small modular reactors in the nuclear sector, adding more hydropower development and relying on competitive markets should be items that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, Gaetz said.

Adding more renewable resources often involves transmission enhancements that present cost recovery challenges for stakeholders, other speakers noted. Offshore wind power can be added along the U.S. East Coast, where population centers are located and existing transmission infrastructure is adequate, noted Hayes Framme, manager of government relations and communications at Orstead. The offshore wind power sector is in its infancy in the U.S., but it presents “plug and play” opportunities that minimize the transmission challenges associated with other resources, said Framme.

FERC is examining several issues around transmission investment, including incentives and the return on equity earned for grid additions, said Neil Chatterjee, FERC chairman. The Commission is seeking comments on policies around transmission development to meet the needs of the changing generation resources, Chatterjee said.

FERC also has taken steps to enable grid operators to use more energy storage resources. That final rule and an examination of distributed energy resources should aid a grid transformation for the benefit of consumers, Chatterjee said.

By Tom Tiernan

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