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Environment & Energy Report

Louisiana Republican Seeks to ‘Redefine’ Climate Change for GOP

March 28, 2019, 10:00 AM

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) has made it clear he is an ardent advocate for saving his state’s disappearing coastline. Now he has to make clear his views on what’s causing the problem and how to address it.

Graves said climate change is real and affecting his state.

As he steps into his new role as ranking member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Graves is wading into less familiar territory— shifting his focus from his home district and tackling the causes and effects of climate change nationwide and globally.

The climate panel—which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) resurrected after Democrats took control of the chamber—holds its initial organizational meeting March 28.

Graves and other Republicans will seek to amend the committee rules to require a cost analysis for any recommendations on curbing rising temperatures.

“We want to set out and talk about how we can redefine what climate is and what it means,” Graves told Bloomberg Environment.

By “redefining” climate change, he explained, he expects to flip a historically left-leaning talking point and make it relatable to conservatives.

Energy efficiency, for example, can reduce energy costs and make the U.S. more competitive—two goals that Republicans typically embrace, Graves said.

“That’s applying Republican principles to this area and that would bring Republicans to the table,” he said. “Democrats would come to that exact same table as we’re talking about ideas that would reduce emissions.”

Climate Stances

As a staffer for former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), and Senate committees, and as coastal adviser to ex-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R), Graves became acutely aware of the effects that coastal erosion, flooding, and other consequences of climate change on the people and environment of his state.

In a 2014 interview in The Baton Rouge Advocate, Graves walked the line between acknowledging the role of climate change and taking action on greenhouse gases.

“To say that it’s not happening while we’re watching it is not in the best interest of the people we’re supposed to be representing,” he said.

But Graves also told The Advocate that scientific uncertainty remains on the role that humans play in rising temperatures.

He said as much in a CNN interview last November: “I think that there’s both a biogenic or natural impact and I think that there’s also a man-made impact that is contributing and I do think that we should be looking at it holistically.”

Graves said his views on climate change haven’t wavered since his election to Congress.

“You can go back and look at my comments from before I even ran for Congress and I’ve said the same thing the entire time,” he told reporters in March. “Entirely policy consistent.”

But he leaves room for future change.

“I hope that my policies do evolve” with more information and scientific discovery, Graves said. “I hope that everybody’s policies, positions, change and evolve—otherwise, we’d all still be riding horses.”

Unconventional Path

Graves’ strategy for bipartisan agreement on climate policy could rely strongly on his personality and alliances in both parties. He’s followed an unconventional path to office, attending three universities without receiving a degree and beginning his career as an intern for former Democratic Sen. John Breaux (La.).

Gregarious, charming, and ambitious according to those who have known him, he can balance environment while backing his oil and gas constituents in his Baton Rouge-area district.

He has “the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, a willingness to listen, and [the ability] to be open to possible solutions that could be supported by both parties.” former Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana and former chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told Bloomberg Environment.

Landrieu is now a senior policy adviser with Van Ness Feldman LLP in Washington and lobbyist for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority—the agency Graves once led.

Graves helped set the stage for Louisiana to receive $5 billion for environmental and community projects from the Deepwater Horizon spill settlement. He’s also pushed for Louisiana to receive a larger share of the revenue from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, in which the federal government gives a portion of offshore oil income to coastal states.

‘A Leader in Action’

Like many Republicans, Graves fails the traditional litmus test on environmentalism. He scored 0 percent on the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard in 2018 and a 3 percent score since his election.

But his energy and persistence has made him an unlikely hero for some conservationists.

“He may work harder than any congressman I have ever seen,” said Brian Moore, a vice president for the National Audubon Society who has worked on Gulf Coast protection since 2006. “He is a real leader, and when I say leader, I mean a leader in thought and a leader in action.”

Graves oversaw the 2012 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, which lays out $50 billion blueprint to protect the coast over 50 years. The documents made several references to climate change at a time when other Republican-leaning states were scrubbing the term from government documents.

Balancing Coastal, Oil Interests

But his coastal legacy is also marked with a public effort to kill a legal challenge against 97 oil, gas, and pipeline companies for tunneling through the state’s delicate coastal lands and contributing to erosion. The suit was ultimately thrown out of federal court and unsuccessful in its Supreme Court bid.

“He did everything he possibly could to destroy the lawsuit,” said John Barry, a former board member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East who led the lawsuit against the oil companies.

Since his election to Congress, Graves has reserved his ire for the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency who he says has harmed the ecosystem through decades of building dams and levees.

“The greatest cause of land loss in Coastal Louisiana is the federal government,” he told a top Obama White House official at a September 2016 hearing on the administration’s carbon-reduction efforts. “You can be wildly successful in your efforts, wildly successful in your efforts, and you are not going to see any reduction in sea level rise for 50 to 100 years.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com