He’s an ardent carbon tax supporter, has called for an end to coal-fired energy, and said the GOP is beholden to fossil-fuel interests.
Rep. Francis Rooney is a two-term congressman from Florida’s Southern Gulf Coast and—surprisingly—a Republican himself.
He remains a traditional conservative on most issues: he supports President Donald Trump’s border wall and opposes the Affordable Care Act and abortion. But he diverts sharply from his party on environment issues.
The former construction magnate and close friend of former President George W. Bush has a plan to get his party on board with taxing greenhouse gas emissions. This Congress, he replaces former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) as the Republican co-chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus, which works to reach bipartisan goals to address climate change.
“Why do we always have to be the people saying no and burying our heads in the sand when scientists all around the world are saying, ‘We’ve got some problems here,’” Rooney told Bloomberg Environment in a recent interview.
Rooney, who shuns political action committee contributions, said oil and coal industry political fundraising “is heavily skewed toward Republicans” and it has influenced the party’s position on climate change.
‘A Market-Sensitive Deal’
Rooney is a co-sponsor on H.R. 763, a bill that would place a $15 fee per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted from burning crude oil, natural gas, or coal. He’s also a staunch backer of Everglades restoration and opposes drilling off Florida’s Coast.
He is confident that, if he sells the concept of a carbon tax right, it just might convince free-market backers.
“First of all, it’s a way to head off something worse,” Rooney said, pointing to Democratic ideas to curb emissions, like a cap-and-trade scheme. “This is a market sensitive deal, it doesn’t require a bureaucracy, you just put the tax in and there it goes.”
So far, House Republicans—even ones who say that reducing carbon emissions should be a priority—are unconvinced.
“When you put a price on carbon, whether that’s directly through a tax or indirectly through regulation, the end result is higher costs for consumers and less capital for private sector innovation and investment,” Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), a top-ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said through his spokesman. “That’s an outcome that would be very hard for most Republicans to support.”
GOP Shift on Climate Change
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), the ranking member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, has also said a carbon tax is “not the right approach for the United States” and that lawmakers should promote incentives that grow capital while lowering emissions, not penalize industries.
A March 29 Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans—62 percent—think the government is not doing enough to protect the environment. The public’s growing concern over climate change seems to have caught up with Republicans. Many—including Shimkus—were once skeptical of actions to control carbon emissions, and now acknowledge that most warming is caused by human activities.
Now in the House minority, certain Republicans have put forth plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions that center on natural gas combustion, nuclear capacity, carbon capture, and energy conservation.
Rooney is thankful for the transition in his party.
“Even though they might not be out there where I am on a carbon tax, they’re at least saying, ‘Look, we’ve got a situation here where the science says we need to deal with so let’s talk about it,’” he said.
To be sure, Rooney can afford to reject PAC money. With a net worth of $22.6 million, according to Roll Call, he almost completely self-funded his first congressional run in 2016 with $3.6 million, and paid for half of his second campaign.
Perhaps as a result of Rooney’s stance on a carbon tax, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) didn’t offer him a spot on the House climate change panel, opting for members who have been less outspoken on climate change action.
“I think it’s probably just as good that I’m not on it if [Republicans] are going to use it as a political weapon against the other side,” Rooney said at a Feb. 28 event, after the GOP roster for the panel was announced.
Born in Muskogee, Okla., Rooney received his bachelor’s and law degrees from Georgetown University. He took over his father’s construction company, Manhattan Construction, in 1984, and went on to build both Bush presidents’ libraries, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, and the Dallas Cowboys football stadium.
A generous donor to Republican political candidates, Rooney was appointed by President George W. Bush to be ambassador to the Vatican in 2005.
He decided to run for office in 2016 when his predecessor, former Rep. Curt Clawson (R), abruptly resigned after one term.
“I thought I had a particular opportunity to help get more money for the Everglades restoration and work on the environmental issues that pertain to Southwest Florida, like this offshore drilling, that maybe someone that hasn’t been involved in Republican things for a long time would not have the ability to pursue quite as aggressively,” he said. “And I think that’s worked out.”