Congress set to pass its ‘most important climate bill’

By Nick Sobczyk, Geof Koss, Jeremy Dillon | 12/18/2019 07:04 AM EST

Lawmakers this week had their best shot thus far to address climate change in the 116th Congress, but they walked away with a mixed bag.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) chairs the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations panel and helped negotiate this week's fiscal accord.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) chairs the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations panel and helped negotiate this week's fiscal accord. Francis Chung/E&E News

Democrats this week had their best shot thus far to address climate change in the 116th Congress, but they walked away with a mixed bag.

The $1.4 trillion appropriations and tax extenders package deal that passed the House yesterday contained a host of clean energy and environmental wins on the spending side, including large funding boosts for Department of Energy research programs and more money for EPA and the Department of the Interior.

At the same time, efforts to extend renewable energy and electric vehicle tax credits and create incentives for energy storage fell apart.


In the end, the tax extenders measure lawmakers passed as an amendment to one of the spending packages contained only a short extension for the renewable production credit.

Environmental and renewable energy industry groups took turns yesterday blasting the package for failing to tackle clean energy and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). But while the year-end deal wasn’t the climate change bill Democrats wanted, it was the one they got with President Trump in the White House.

"This is the most important climate bill this Congress will pass in this session," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. "The difference is we have real money, so you can talk about Green Deals, but we have the Green Real Deal."

Kaptur’s section of the domestic and international assistance minibus includes a $469 million increase for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and raises funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to a record $425 million.

On top of the research cash, Kaptur pointed to the Army Corps of Engineers, which received a roughly $650 million increase for fiscal 2020, as an important lever to build climate-resilient infrastructure, particularly amid incessant flooding in the Midwest.

The League of Conservation Voters, however, called the package as a whole a "major disappointment," citing the lack of language to expand electric vehicle incentives, set drinking water standards for PFAS and provide full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"While there is plenty of blame to go around, this disappointing finish to the first session of the 116th Congress further underscores the dire need to elect a pro-environment president and pro-environment majority in the Senate in 2020," Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president of government affairs, said in a statement.

Sittenfeld and other environmentalists also lamented that Democrats gave away a potential bargaining chip — $1 billion for Trump’s border wall — while failing to negotiate environmental priorities into the spending bills.

Democrats, by and large, acknowledged those shortcomings, particularly on the clean energy tax side, and said they have their work cut out for them in the new year.

The Senate is expected to pass the year-end deal, which came together as two separate bills, before fiscal 2020 funding expires at the end of the week.

"There’s progress on energy efficiency research, on funding for EPA, so that’s positive in the face of Trump’s head in the sand," said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

"We’re just simply treading water when it comes to investment in solar and wind and renewable energy, and the lack of a tax credit extension for electric vehicles is a real problem."

‘Missed opportunity’ on taxes

The eleventh-hour tax deal was indeed limited to already expired energy incentives and those that are slated to end at the end of the month.

Among the clean energy credits that were rumored to be part of talks toward the end was a one-year extension of the renewable investment tax credit and a five-year extension of an incentive for offshore wind. Negotiations, however, fell apart at the last minute.

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee yesterday lamented that those incentives were nixed from the deal but said it was an uphill fight, given the range of tax issues in the mix and competing pressures.

"The challenge was that there was just too many countercurrents back and forth," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told E&E News. "There were moments that we had a lot more in this package. And then we lost that game."

"It’s disappointing, but we escaped a disastrous conclusion if we didn’t get anything done," he added.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said hopes about clean energy provisions "came apart" during a late meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin centered around a technical correction to the 2017 tax bill sought by Republicans and the White House.

"They couldn’t find their way to yes," he said of the Trump administration. "It didn’t bring down the whole package, but it brought down some of the most important provisions for us, including offshore wind."

However, the final deal included a one-year extension of the renewable production tax credit, which is slated to phase out from the code at the end of the month. It also would provide a five-year extension of the biodiesel tax credit that is favored by Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

The biodiesel break was considered a carrot for getting Grassley to deal on an expansion of the EV tax credit, but those talks were undercut by the White House’s deep-seated opposition to the EV credit, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said yesterday.

"The president had one goal: Kill the electric car," Kildee told E&E News, "and, at least for the time being, succeeded."

‘Primaries, anyone?’

What few wins Democrats pulled from the bills on the spending side were bipartisan, and environmental groups weren’t pulling any punches on what they saw as the party’s failures to negotiate on taxes.

"This tax package fails to meet the level of ambition needed for clean energy and, as such, is a missed opportunity to address the climate crisis," John Bowman, managing director for government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Democrats made a conscious effort to boost funding at environmental agencies to tackle pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but Republicans in many cases were happy to go along, especially given their rhetoric in recent months about addressing climate change through "energy innovation."

"It’s not a bill [with] Green New Deal-type stuff that have these outlandish goals in there," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Kaptur’s counterpart on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. "This is something you can actually do, and that is what we are doing."

Democrats, however, indicated that they plan to keep needling the GOP to go further next year.

Several House committees are working on ambitious climate legislation to build up political will for after the 2020 elections. In the near term, Democrats are hoping to continue chipping away with new research authorizations and small-ball climate bills.

"It’s a win for climate, but we have a lot more to do," said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. "But it does express the focus of the majority of the House to deal with it as the crisis that it is."

Democrats also said they want to continue pushing for renewable extenders and an expansion of the EV credit next year, particularly as more automakers hit the current 200,000-vehicle cap.

Kildee, for instance, said backers of the EV credit could look to an expected lame-duck session after the 2020 elections.

And Senate Democrats said the May expiration of certain health tax provisions, business frustration with the 2017 tax bill glitch, unsettled pension issues and the lame-duck session could all open opportunities to work on clean energy incentives next year.

Still, some environmentalists had a different vision for the future on their minds yesterday.

In a Twitter thread yesterday afternoon, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune blasted Democrats for the spending deal and said his group "cannot accept failure when it comes to protecting our climate for our children and future generations."

"Primaries, anyone?" he wrote.

Reporter George Cahlink contributed.