Climate Politics/Capitol Light (47)

March 17, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is a free version of the newsletter prepared for clients of the JBS Group.

The world is not doing well in its efforts to meet the existing voluntary goals of the Paris climate accord—targets that collectively were known to be inadequate from the day the accord first came into force.

A projected 22 million people were displaced by extreme weather in 2019, up from 17.2 million the year before, according to the recently released World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) annual State of the Global Climate Report.

The specialized United Nations agency used data from national meteorological and hydrological services across the globe to confirm that 2019 was the second-warmest year on record;  2015 to 2019 were the warmest five years on record; and 2010 to 2019 was the warmest decade on record. “Since the 1980s, each successive decade has been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850,” according to WMO.

In a foreword to the report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote that the findings indicate the world is far from achieving the goals outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate and illustrate “the urgency for far-reaching climate action.”

According to WMO, temperatures in 2019 were, on average, 1.1ºC above pre-industrial levels, and Australia, India, Japan, and Europe all experienced record temperatures. Temperatures in the ocean measured to a depth of 2 kilometers exceeded previous record highs. The report goes further to connect climate-related weather events with specific impacts on health, displacement, and food security. Among the causes cited:

  • A dry spring in the Horn of Africa followed by a wet fall caused an outbreak of desert locusts, which consumed crops and threatened the region’s food supply. It is expected to continue in 2020.
  • A major heatwave in Japan resulted in over 100 deaths and an additional 18,000 hospitalizations. In France, more than 20,000 people visited emergency rooms for heat-related illnesses between June and mid-September.
  • Reduced oxygen in the ocean has joined marine heatwaves and ocean acidification as major threats posed by climate change, both to ocean creatures and the people that depend on them.

Capitol Hill Highlights: Week of March 8-14, 2020

Stale arguments/stale-mate. The American Energy Innovation Act (AEIA) hit a stalemate in Senate negotiations over several amendments that threaten to derail the legislation altogether, including a proposed phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons. Lawmakers voted against closing debate on the package, indicating continued interest in pushing for some of the 191 proposed amendments, though the path forward is unclear. (The Hill)

Senate Republicans and Democrats are hoping to add amendments, including one sponsored by Senators John Neely Kennedy (R-LA) and Tom Carper (D-DE) that would phase down the use of HFCs.

The administration has been refusing the phasedown since taking office—a move that many Republicans, Democrats, and industries, e.g., heating and air condition, think unwise.

Trump’s refusal to support the phase down also means the US is unwilling to support the Kigali Amendment of the UN’s Montreal Protocol.

As discussed in Climate Politics/Capitol Light (46), the Murkowski/Manchin legislation was a long-shot to be passed in the midst of the current political battles between House Democrats and Trump—even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate opposition is being led by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) in what appears to be a turf battle. Barrasso’s primary complaint is that the amendment should have gone through his committee—Environment and Public Works—before being added to AEIA.

Barrasso is also opposed to language in the amendment that blocks states from setting HFC standards that might be stricter than those of the federal government. Interestingly, his states’ rights argument is precisely the one that Trump refuses to accept in the case of auto fuel efficiency/emission standards.

Although the legislation may be salvaged, the negotiations taking place are important for the lessons they hold for future talks—particularly should the Senate remain Republican and the House Democratic under a Biden or Sanders administration.

Oy vey, oyey. Five Democratic senators wrote to the White House pushing back on a planned rewrite of the regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act. The letter said that failing to consider a project’s cumulative impacts on the environment could have a “disastrous effect” on communities already subject to pollution. Their missive is a last-ditch effort, as the Council of Environmental Quality said earlier this month that it would not arrange further public meetings on the rewrite.

Attorneys general for 18 states are also asking the Trump administration to withdraw the sweeping changes that were announced in January. The proposed new rule would roll back a bedrock environmental law, arguing the proposal is “unlawful, unreasonable, and unjustified.”

Trump’s changes would limit the breadth of the law, going so far as to exclude some projects from undergoing a NEPA review, e.g., those that receive little federal funding. It also opens the door for more industry involvement in reviewing the environmental impacts of their projects and removes the “cumulative” effects language. The language is that which the courts have largely interpreted as requiring the government to determine a project’s impact on global warming.

The request was submitted by Washington, California, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. (The Hill)

The proposed regulatory change is an attempt by the administration to amend–by executive rather than congressional action–legislation that was first passed during and with the support of President Nixon.

The letters are simply a prelude to yet one more legal challenge to a Trump administration deregulation attempt. Should Trump win a second term, the case will ultimately find its way to the US Supreme Court.

Flooded out.  The federal government is giving local officials nationwide a painful choice: Agree to use eminent domain to force people out of flood-prone homes, or forfeit a shot at federal money they need to combat climate change.

That choice, part of an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect people from disasters, is facing officials from the Florida Keys to the New Jersey coast, including Miami, Charleston, SC, and Selma, Ala. Local governments seeking federal money to help people leave flood zones must first commit to pushing out people who refuse to move. (New York Times)

The Corps’ mission includes protecting Americans from flooding and coastal storms through a variety of means including building sea walls, levees, and other protections, and elevating homes. The Corps generally pays two-thirds of the cost, which can stretch into billions of dollars. The local government usually pays the rest.

Because of recurrent flooding of the same sites due to climate change, the Corps has shifted from protection to eviction and destruction—paying local governments to buy and demolish homes at risk of flooding.

At the end of 2015, the Corps said that voluntary programs were “not acceptable” and that all future buyout programs “must include the option to use eminent domain, where warranted.”

No bailing allowed. Conservatives are pushing back against the possibility of the Trump administration providing federal aid to oil and gas producers.

They can take care of themselves,” said Republican Senator Mike Braun (R-IN), who co-chairs the Climate Solutions Caucus, referring to the oil industry. “Why do you overreact just when there’s a little pain? That doesn’t make sense. “The White House is pushing the idea of providing low-interest government loans to shale companies, according to the Washington Post.

This may be one of the few things the far-left and far-right actually agree on.

Imagine Trump’s surprise.

Joining in opposition. Senators Markey (D-MA), Merkley (D-OR), and Sanders (I-VT) decried any plan to bail out fossil fuel executives as part of the national coronavirus response. Reports indicate the administration is considering various strategies to soften the negative economic impacts of the pandemic. Options it is considering include low-interest loans, royalty relief, tax breaks, and direct cash payments to American families.

The Senators are especially concerned about the possibility of the administration’s purchasing petroleum to increase federal reserves in an effort to bailout oil companies, many of which are already in debt and have lost access to credit from major financial institutions. In a letter to Trump, the Senators stated it would be both bad business and policy for the government to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to grant executives a new windfall.

Read all about them. The League of Conservation Voters has released its 2019 National Environmental Scorecard on the members of Congress. This year’s grading was based on 29 House votes on climate bills, while the Senate’s also included confirmation votes for presidential nominees deemed “anti-environmental.” Eight Republican senators received 0 per-cent scores, while 33 Democratic senators got a perfect score. In the House, 21 House Republicans earned 0 percent scores, while 31 Democrats got 100 percent.

A lesson in the way democracy is NOT supposed to work

Oregon Governor Kate Brown exercised her executive powers on March 11, 2020 to end-run the state’s Republican lawmakers, who have refused a vote on carbon trading legislation. It should be noted that Senate Republicans have not merely refused to vote on the cap-and-trade bill. They’ve fled the state to be sure that the Democratic Senate majority lacks the constitutionally mandated quorum requirement of two-thirds of the members present in order to do business.

It’s not the first time this band of merry political leaders has skedaddled out of Dodge—they did it twice last year. First, to stall a business tax and kill vaccine and gun control bills, then to help kill the 2019 version of cap-and-trade. They need to cross the Oregon state line to avoid being dragged back by the State Police pursuant to a gubernatorial warrant.

Brown’s Executive Order 17-04 sets long-term emissions goals, targeting a 45 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2035 and an 80 percent cut by 2050. It orders the state’s Environmental Quality Commission to issue regulations setting caps on carbon emissions for the transportation, natural gas, and large industrial sectors.

It also strengthens the state’s clean fuels standard to set what Brown calls the “most ambitious clean fuels goal in the country.” The new goal requires 20 percent of Oregon’s transportation fuels to come from clean sources, including biofuels, electricity, natural gas, and propane, by 2030 and 25 percent by 2035.

The 11 Republican senators are said to represent 36 percent of Oregon’s population—a majority of which supports the need to act forcefully in defense of the environment.

There’s a parallel here to what’s been happening in Washington. Legislative gridlock leads to an imperial executive—which is not what the founders of the nation had in mind at the federal or the state level.

Moreover, executive actions can be easily erased by the next imperial in line. Executive orders are too unstable ever to be trusted by the market, so there’s less opportunity for the public and private sectors to work together.

The only way net-zero emission targets are ever going to be achieved over the next two or three decades is by the sectors working together—starting at the state and local levels.

A note to readers: The House held a second vote on the compromise legislation worked out between Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and voted on over the weekend. Trump has expressed support for the bill. The second vote was to make technical changes to the bill.

The bill includes language that would ensure that workers can take paid sick or family leave, increase unemployment insurance, and guarantee that all Americans can get free diagnostic testing for the coronavirus.

The Senate could vote on the bill as early as tomorrow evening. Although Senate passage is still a matter of debate, notwithstanding Trump’s support for the Pelosi/Mnuchin compromise.

The House is scheduled to leave on recess. It was originally scheduled to return on March 23, 2020. However, Speaker Pelosi has now indicated that House will not come back into session on the 23rd because of concerns over the health of members and staff having to travel back to the Capitol by air or train once they leave on recess.

Finally, everyone at The JBS Group encourages readers to be careful out there and the best of health during these trying times.

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American energy policy, American environmental regulation, American politics