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Environment & Energy Report

Congress’ Midyear Environment Grade: Middling, Observers Say

June 25, 2019, 10:31 AM

Six months into a new Congress that began with hopes of action on climate change, clean energy and the environment, advocates have gained some modest wins—but they acknowledge that lawmakers would be hard-pressed to score a passing grade.

Assessing any progress hinges on the fate of some key bills that have yet to be introduced—particularly in what may still emerge as a comprehensive energy package in the Senate, environmental and industry groups told Bloomberg Environment.

One early win was the rejection of President Donald Trump’s deep proposed cuts to environmental and clean energy funding, with passage of a fiscal 2019 spending bill that ended a 35-day government shutdown in January and raised the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency to $8.8 billion.

The other victory—and arguably the only significant legislative package to pass Congress this year—was a public lands-conservation bill (S. 47) that Trump signed in March, making a $900-million-a-year Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent, while also modernizing technologies to combat wildfires and expanding Joshua Tree National Park and other parks.

Those two achievements were “Important accomplishments—but I’m a tougher grader than that,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“If you think every successive Congress should be adding to our environmental agenda and making our planet safer for the future, we’re behind,” Cardin said.

No Bipartisan Climate Bills

So far, no big climate change legislation has emerged in Congress, though the Democratic-controlled House has held 30 or so hearings on the issue and has passed one significant climate bill (H.R. 9) seeking to block the U.S. from withdrawing from the Paris climate deal.

But that bill is dead on arrival in the GOP-run Senate—a chamber that’s likely to ignore or block most other Democratic legislation.

“They can talk about [environmental legislation], but they’re not going to get it through the Senate and they’re not going to get it signed by the White House, so I don’t worry about it so much,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Measured progress is to be expected as long as Democrats control only one chamber, said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president of government affairs.

“At this point, progress is going to be less about big environmental legislation being enacted into law, because we have stalwart opponents” in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Trump, she said.

“But we have seen the House make very important first steps,” she said.

The ambitious Green New Deal resolution (H.Res. 109, S.Res. 59) has drawn 93 Democratic cosponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate, but leaders in both chambers have expressed little interest in moving it. A McConnell-driven attempt at forcing a vote failed after Democrats said the majority leader was only trying to score political points.

A spokesman for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Green New Deal’s leading voice in the House, said she and many other like-minded Democrats want to see the House vote on significant climate legislation even if such bills don’t move in the Senate. They argue the House should have climate legislation ready to go if Democrats topple Trump in 2020 and win control of the Senate.

Until then, “it’s doubtful Congress can get anything through at this moment other than tone-setting” legislation, Ocasio-Cortez spokesman Corbin Trent said.

Energy Package

National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara said he expects “some very thoughtful legislation” to emerge in an energy package from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat.

Murkowski is expected to pass energy efficiency and other individual measures through her Senate committee first, and package them together later this year, perhaps combining them with yet another public-lands and conservation measure.

O’Mara said he has been pleasantly surprised at bipartisan support for bills fighting wildfires and congressional spending bills that reject proposed Trump administration funding cuts to environmental and clean energy programs.

The Democratic-controlled House is set to vote on a fiscal 2020 Interior-EPA spending bill (H.R. 3055) that boosts the EPA’s funding to $9.52 billion, $3.42 billion above Trump’s request.

O’Mara gives Congress “a solid B” grade for its work on climate change, reflecting muted expectations on prospects for a big climate bill.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said he has seen more cooperation than expected on that committee as Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) tackles legislation on ocean acidification and focuses on cleaner fossil fuels.

“I think we are progressing along. You’ve watched the culture of the committee shift a little bit,” with fewer lines being drawn over climate and science issues, he said.

He cited other signs of progress, such as a bipartisan revamping of the National Flood Insurance Program (H.R. 3167) that the House Financial Services Committee approved June 12.

PFAS Momentum

The contamination risks from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, has gained surprising momentum in the first half of 2019, with a half-dozen proposals moving in the Senate.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told reporters June 18 that committee members “have struck a good balance in dealing with an issue that is very important to members on both sides of the aisle, and we are going to try to get them signed into law.”

His panel attached several of those proposals to a fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill (S. 1790) June 19 in an amendment by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) that would force the EPA to set an exposure threshold for PFAS.

Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the committee’s top Democrat, said he expects the defense bill to include as many as six PFAS proposals, including language he wants that would classify PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances.

Efficient Transportation, Energy Storage

The Senate committee is also about to introduce what many view as a key climate-related proposal in the 116th Congress: a section on climate change priorities in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill. Carper expects the committee to advance the bill before the August recess.

“One of the things that is most important to us Democrats is that we write a bill that acknowledges the kind of world we live in, the kinds of threats that we face by climate change, global warming, and extreme weather, and to make sure that in that bill is a climate title,” Carper said.

Clean energy advocates also say they’re encouraged by early action this year, mostly in the House, to boost Energy Department research.

ClearPath, a conservative group that backs renewable and nuclear energy, as well as natural gas, is bullish on a battery energy storage bill (S. 1142) that Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced in April. The bill would provide an investment tax credit starting at 30% for business and residential use of energy storage technologies.

Heinrich hopes to include the energy storage tax credit measure in any tax legislation that comes out of the Senate Finance Committee, including a package to retroactively extend tax credits for biodiesel that expired at the end of 2017.

“Energy storage is something that just everyone agrees on,” ClearPath Executive Director Rich Powell said.

Energy Department clean-energy research and development programs also are poised for major increases under the House fiscal 2020 energy and water spending bill, he said.

“The U.S. DOE is the single largest pool of capital in the planet focused on clean R&D, and there has been record-breaking funding for those in fiscal 2018 and 2019 bills,” Powell said.

He also expects Congress to move bills in the months ahead creating more incentives for advanced nuclear power and carbon capture and storage.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com