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Clean Energy, Climate Advocates See Room for Modest Gains in 2019

Oct. 16, 2018, 10:42 AM

A push by Democrats for climate legislation next year in the House might appear to be a fool’s errand, given that the Senate is likely to remain in Republican hands.

But the prospect that Democrats will control the House for the first time since 2011 has spurred talk of at least some policy tweaks that could test whether both parties can rack up modest deals to boost incentives for clean energy and make infrastructure more resilient to climate impacts.

If the Nov. 6 election ends with a divided Congress, expect to see little progress on bills that attempt to tackle climate change but instead incremental policies that help boost wind and solar energy or modestly reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

“At least climate change won’t be a four-letter word anymore on Capitol Hill,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, a former climate and energy aide to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) now with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she hopes to resurrect an energy package that included increased energy efficiency measures, which fell short of passage in the last Congress.

Murkowski told Bloomberg Environment she’d back at least opening talks with Democrats on modest solutions to climate change.

“Let’s stand down on the rhetoric and really engage in an honest discussion about the issues,” she said.

Barrasso Eyes Carbon Reuse

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is a member of Senate Republican leadership, is touting his USE It bill (S. 2602), which would award prizes for technological advancements in the re-use of carbon dioxide.

The bill has backing from senators from both parties including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), an advocate of climate action, and West Virginia Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Joe Manchin (D), backers of the coal industry.

A version of Barrasso’s measure, which would provide incentives for making commercial products from carbon dioxide, was approved by his Senate environmental panel in May.

“Carbon dioxide capture and removal technologies play an important role in lowering global carbon dioxide emissions,” Barrasso said in an Oct. 11 statement, adding that such technology-driven approaches “can both reduce emissions and transform carbon dioxide into a widely used, valuable product.”

Another priority for the Wyoming Republican: moving his Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S. 512) to provide a regulatory pathway for advanced nuclear reactors.

The environment panel approved an amended version of his his bill in May 2017 but it hasn’t been brought to the floor.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins sees hope for resurrecting legislation also backed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to cut emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning, and short-lived climate pollutants such as methane.

Collins told Bloomberg Environment the recent report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning of severe climate impacts to come unless there is a quick global transformation was “alarming in presenting dramatic changes that are going to happen much more quickly than previous reports had indicated.”

Murphy said he was skeptical that even modest legislative gains on clean energy and climate legislation are in the offing, unless voters give Democrats control of both chambers.

“If we want to make any progress, even on some incremental basis, on climate we have got to win back both the House and Senate—and even then, the progress would only be incremental,” he said.

What Does Incremental Mean?

Groups that back clean energy and tackling climate change, such as the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, have been in talks for months strategizing on what incremental policies are possible in a divided Congress.

Bob Perciasepe, who was acting head of the EPA during the Obama administration and is now C2ES president, said he’s optimistic some modest measures can advance, but added that a Democratic-controlled House may be more focused on oversight of Trump administration agencies.

“If you make the assumption that the House will flip but it won’t be a big majority for them and the Senate stays narrowly Republican, that doesn’t suggest a lot of agreement on bills,” he said.

Perciasepe said there are two modest changes that could be passed with a divided government: further expansion of 45Q incentives—named for their tax code provision—for carbon capture and storage projects, and extension or expansion of existing credits for wind and solar energy.

“I think a simple extension at some level can send pretty strong signals to capital markets” that will help ensure wind and solar projects continue to attract investment, he said.

Common Ground for Divided Parties

That’s not to say big legislative initiatives aren’t possible with a divided Congress. Alex Flint, a former staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, noted that a 2007 energy bill passed under a divided government—Republican President George W. Bush and a Democratic-controlled Congress.

That legislation strengthened vehicle efficiency standards and energy efficiency requirements, and ratcheted up renewable fuels targets.

Moving broader climate legislation, which is strongly opposed by most Republicans in Congress and much of the oil, gas, and coal industries, would almost certainly require Democrats to win control of both the House and Senate, and then would be an uphill battle to get past the White House.

But expect Democrats like Sens. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Whitehouse, whose competing cap-and-dividend bills would return the bulk of carbon tax revenue to households, to continue their efforts.

“Look, we understand the prospects of success depend a lot on the outcome of this election,” Van Hollen told Bloomberg Environment. “But I plan to reintroduce our bill and move it forward.” Van Hollen last introduced his bill, the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act (S. 2352), in January.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com

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