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Have Establishment Democrats Found Their Answer to the Green New Deal?
Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have released a detailed “memo” as a prequel to climate legislation they…
Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have released a detailed “memo” as a prequel to climate legislation they will be introducing under the torturous title of The Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s Future Act (CLEAN Future Act or Act).
The Act’s goal is to ensure that the United States achieves net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution no later than 2050. Lurking behind the provisions of the proposed legislation are the political motives of its Committee authors — all of whom are Democrats.
The Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), has indicated that the whole idea of the draft legislation is to build consensus. With whom do you suppose Pallone would like to build such consensus? I’ll give you a hint — it’s not with Republicans. Not that the chairman would refuse Republican cooperation were it to be genuinely offered.
If you guessed the hoped-for consensus partners are the progressive Democrats in Congress, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), you get a gold star on your permanent record. The CLEAN Future Act can be properly viewed as the answer of establishment Democrats to the Green New Deal.
Pallone was candid in his response to reporters’ questions when the memo was released. Asked if he thought the legislation had any chance of passage by Congress, he replied not if Trump was in the White House and Republicans were in control of the Senate.
Even before the 116th Congress was first gaveled to order, progressive House members led by freshman Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tried to maneuver Speaker Pelosi into establishing a new standing House committee on the climate crisis. The newly created committee was to be given the charge of converting the Green New Deal concept that Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on into legislation.
Pelosi had always intended to create a Select Committee similar to the one she had appointed as Speaker of the 110th Congress in 2007. The then-House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming lacked the powers of a standing committee — primarily the abilities to subpoena witnesses and report a bill out for consideration by the full House.
The Select Committee did, however, play important roles in the creation of the 2007 energy act and in shaping the American Clean Energy and Security Act popularly referred to as Waxman-Markey. The House narrowly passed the bill to create a national cap-and-trade program, but it failed even to be brought to the floor of the Senate — which was then under control of the Democrats.
The demand for a new standing committee ruffled the feathers of senior Democrats like Pallone, who would finally be able to assume the chairmanships of committees and subcommittees on which they were forced to sit for years — powerless to act — while Republicans set the agendas. The call for a new committee was accusatory of establishment Democrats and played into the generational battle that’s flared within the Party in recent times.
Democrats in Congress were unprepared at the beginning of the 116th Congress to commit themselves to the GND, which for all its elevated and sweeping prose, lacked the legislative language and specificity needed to make a sound judgment.
The absence of actual structure and the unfortunate leaking of staff memos has allowed Trump, Republican lawmakers, and conservative media outlets to turn the GND to their advantage. They’ve managed to use it as a flashpoint for their claims that the Democratic left is intending to turn our democracy into a socialist society.
Trump has consistently miscast and belittled the concept saying it sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark and that its supporters want to take away people’s cars, stop airplane travel, and outlaw meat.
The GND electrified the climate debate but created in its wake of two-page resolutions, sound-bites, and sit-ins calling for a wartime economy a policy vacuum that has needed to be filled — and not with the absurd claims of climate deniers and a mythomaniac president.
The CLEAN Future Act is an attempt by leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its subcommittees to achieve a Democratic consensus around a broad package of sector-specific proposals with which to respond to the climate crisis. What’s in the draft CLEAN Fuel Act?
An overview of the CLEAN Future Act
The actual legislative language will not be released for weeks. However, the 15-page memo offers a substantive look into what the draft bill(s) will contain. The proposal is the culmination of a series of extensive hearings held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its Energy and Energy and Climate Change subcommittees. It has been contributed to by hearings in other House committees, e.g., Natural Resources. Many of the provisions of the Act have either already been introduced as separate bills by various Democratic House members.
The Act establishes national carbon reduction targets apportioned among the states, much like the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The targets would be raised annually until 2050, when power providers would be required to source their electricity only from supplies considered clean without incurring a penalty. Electric generators would be permitted to buy and sell credits to meet their targets.
The draft bill will propose a nationwide clean energy standard (CES) and amend the Public Utilities Policies Act (PURPA) to ensure that states consider storage systems in their resource mix, establish loan and grant programs for distributed energy systems, and reauthorize the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Act of 1981 (LIHEAP)
The proposed Act goes much beyond the power sector into the realm of the Green New Deal. It establishes a first-of-its-kind National Climate Bank to help states, cities, Tribes, communities, and companies fund the transition to a clean economy. The Act aims to improve the efficiency of new and existing buildings, as well as the equipment and appliances that operate within them through the development and adoption of model energy codes.
Other of the sectors targeted by the Act include transportation and industrial processes. A suite of measures to ratchet up vehicle emission standards and support the shift to low- and zero-carbon transportation fuels are part of the draft legislation.
Strategies for industry include loan guarantees for decarbonization projects, reauthorization of the Combined Heat and Power (CHP) partnership program, support for the development of effective and cost-efficient carbon capture technologies, and rebates, and other funding schemes for the purchase and installation of efficient systems.
To ensure that the transition to a net-zero carbon economy is fair, the CLEAN Future Act introduces environmental justice considerations into the approval of state plans for clean air and safe disposal of hazardous waste, ensuring that approved state plans address disproportionate exposures of at-risk communities, e.g., low income and elderly, to legacy toxic chemicals. The legislation would also provide needed funds for community resilience and adaptation projects.
When published, the bill will be open for discussion. The Committee seeks an analysis of alternative baseline options, including the merits and implications of setting a lower emissions threshold. Under the memo’s heading of “Next Steps,” the Committee lists policy areas not yet in the draft bill but should be, including:
provisions related to workforce and community transition;
adaptation and climate resilience;
agriculture; financial issues, including climate risk disclosure;
recycling and waste management; transmission siting; and,
trade-related issues, including preserving the global competitiveness of U.S. EITE (Energy Intensive Trade Exposed) manufacturers.
True to the GND concept, the CLEAN Future Act recognizes the complexity of the climate crisis and reaches across multiple sectors in its efforts to achieve desired outcomes. It is an admittedly imperfect piece of proposed legislation, but it can be made better through collaboration.
Several environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund have indicated their approval of Act. Other climate activist organizations, e.g., the Sunrise Movement, are objecting to the proposed bill for its failure to set the decarbonization goal at 2030. Sunrise’s legislative manager has said: working on this timeline  will jeopardize millions of lives, and that’s not a bet we’re willing to make.
How much longer will the timeline be if Trump wins a second term? With Trump in the White House, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate of anything less than two-thirds means years more of Trumpian chaos. How many more millions of lives will be put at risk if the Democrats fail in November? Is that the bet we should make?
The nation is as divided today as it was four years ago. The 2020 elections will be won or lost by the same narrow margins as those in 2016. The fate of a nation and future generations will be decided by a few thousand votes here and a couple of hundred there.
The climate community cannot continue to allow Trump and FOX News to control the dialogue. Time is of the essence, and it’s now time for Democrats and Independents — moderates and progressives — to come together around a common set of climate policies and to propose with one voice — at least long enough to get through the November elections.
Lead photo courtesy of Darren Halstead and Unsplash