House Democrats unveiled their vision for climate policy yesterday, 538 pages of grand suggestions and granular policy details.
The Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ majority staff report is arguably the most comprehensive climate policy plan in American politics, surpassing presidential candidates’ proposals and previous congressional white papers in specificity and scope.
Taken together, its policy recommendations would reduce emissions 88% below 2010 levels by 2050 and generate benefits totaling roughly $8 trillion, according to an analysis by Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan environment and energy research firm (E&E Daily, June 30).
The goal is getting the nation to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That’s the target widely agreed upon by Democrats and advocates to avoid the worst effects of climate change, based on science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The report encompasses more than 100 bills, and the table of contents alone takes four pages. So what are the report’s high points and takeaways?
The report’s linchpin policies for both the power and transportation sectors reflect an ideological trend that’s been building for years among environmentalists. In short, it’s all about decarbonization standards.
For the power sector, the report recommends a clean energy standard based on H.R. 2597, from Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and various portfolio standards enacted by states, which aim to hit net-zero emissions by 2040.
For transportation, the report suggests a technology-neutral standard that would ensure all new light-duty vehicles are zero emission by 2035.
In the past, a carbon tax was widely seen by advocates as a catch-all policy for decarbonization, And while the report does recommend carbon pricing, it’s as a complement to the standards that spell out explicit emissions and green technology deployment schedules.
That has some carbon tax advocates worried. Emissions targets laid down by administrative bureaucracy, they argue, are more difficult to manage and could be burdensome for a federal government that often misses deadlines, particularly alongside other wide-ranging climate policies.
"It really shows you the scale of action that’s needed," said Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that advocates for carbon pricing.
"And then the real question is, who do we want taking those actions? Who do we want driving the decisions behind them?"
National climate bank
The report also includes another policy that’s gaining traction with environmentalists and Capitol Hill: a national climate bank.
It’s an idea that’s become popular in recent years. There are more than a dozen green banks operating around the country, funding clean energy technology and infrastructure resilience projects.
Together, they cobbled together more than $5 billion in investment from 2010 to 2019, according to an annual report from the American Green Bank Consortium and the Coalition for Green Capital.
At the federal level, the select committee’s recommendation is based on H.R. 5416, from Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), which would establish the national climate bank as a nonprofit and offer $35 billion in funding over 10 years.
It’s a way to inject funding into climate projects as other policies force industries across the economy to decarbonize.
"Green banks are a proven model that could be replicated across the United States to help all communities benefit from the deployment of clean energy technologies and climate-resilient infrastructure," the report says.
The report is heavy on environmental justice considerations, which is unsurprising given that environmentalists and lawmakers have highlighted environmental justice activists more than ever over the last year (E&E Daily, Jan. 31).
If all the report’s recommendations were enacted, the federal government would have to vastly expand its environmental justice outreach through more aggressive enforcement at EPA and through the National Environmental Policy Act, among other policy avenues.
Perhaps the most wide-ranging recommendation is the "Environmental Justice for All Act," from Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Donald McEachin (D-Va.), a bill written with heavy input from environmental justice communities.
Among other things, the measure would amend NEPA to account for environmental justice concerns.
The select committee also argues that Congress should amend the Civil Rights Act to protect victims of climate injustice.
There’s plenty of talk in the report about investing in infrastructure, but perhaps most important to the clean energy transition is its proposal to move toward a national supergrid.
Because wind and solar power stations are usually far from population centers, the country will likely need to build new high-voltage direct-current transmission lines across state lines to reach its climate goals.
As the report notes, the permitting process is often byzantine, involves multiple agencies and can take years.
Among other reforms, the report recommends amending the Federal Power Act to require the Department of Energy to consider greenhouse gas emissions reductions when it considers new transmission corridors.
The report would also set DOE and the National Laboratories to work developing a long-range electric infrastructure strategy to transmit clean energy around the country by 2040.
Nuclear with a catch
While not a full-hearted embrace on nuclear energy, House Democrats’ efforts to promote a clean energy standard and a carbon tax leave room for nuclear energy.
And other proposals in the report to extend life spans of existing reactors and increase advanced reactor research and development open the door for the power source.
Even so, Democrats cautioned nuclear was not without its problems.
"Nuclear power plants, however, are not pollution-free," the report noted. "They generate radioactive waste that lasts for thousands of years and for which the United States has not developed a permanent disposal solution."
Pointing to issues of nuclear waste disposal and perceived rollbacks of reactor oversight programs by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the report warns nuclear can only go forward with enhanced reactor oversight regulations.
The report offers a road map that would invest in advanced reactor R&D and the embrace of small modular reactors. To achieve that, it recommends offering a launching pad of the technology through federal financing, loan guarantees, other types of federal credit or a pilot program for a long-term power purchase agreement for federal agencies.
For the Nuclear Energy Institute, that may be enough help to keep nuclear energy humming.
"We are encouraged the plan includes support to keep our existing nuclear plants churning out reliable carbon-free power for American homes and businesses and promotes development and demonstration of advanced reactors that can decarbonize sectors beyond power generation," said John Kotek, NEI’s vice president of policy development and public affairs.
"The recognition of nuclear in the report demonstrates the consensus that nuclear energy is viewed as an essential partner to wind, solar and storage to achieve an affordable, reliable, decarbonized energy sector," he added.
Pulling carbon out of the air
Even with the sweeping policies, the report acknowledges it will take some technological breakthroughs to get to net-zero emissions, including the potential for removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.
Central to that effort will be technology known as direct air capture, a facility with big fans that circulate air through a filter that can capture CO2.
The technology remains in its infancy with high deployment costs. To help make it more palatable, the report suggests the federal government launch a 10-year, multiagency direct air capture R&D program that builds off an initial $20 million provided for the technology in DOE’s fiscal 2020 budget.
On top of that research, Congress could consider "providing financial incentives for carbon removal; preparing for large-scale subsurface storage of carbon dioxide; and creating markets for products made from carbon captured from the atmosphere" as other ways to help at the same time.
Some environmental groups have remained hesitant embracing the technology, for fear it could give carte blanche to continue emitting CO2. The report warns that direct air capture is not meant to serve as a single silver bullet.
"Given these uncertainties, the world cannot rely solely on carbon removal technologies as a panacea or as a substitute for cost-effective primary mitigation," the report says. "As such, Congress should approach carbon removal as one part of a portfolio of deployable technologies to maximize the likelihood of limiting the average increase in global temperatures and restoring climate balance."
Civilian Conservation Corps redux
The report endorses the creation of a 21st-century Civilian Conservation Corps, a job training program for young people to work in national parks and on public lands.
The concept has been floated for years, inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and ’40s that was established as part of the New Deal.
The idea has, however, been given new life in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Just as the original conservation corps was conceived to help the nation recover from the Great Depression, proponents are now touting a revived conservation corps as something that can help the current economy recover from the ongoing global health crisis.
As proponents continue to advocate for conservation corps funding in the next coronavirus relief package, the select climate committee’s endorsement — and, by extension, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) — could provide a major jolt of momentum.
The committee notes there are several bills addressing the subject. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) has a bill, H.R. 2358.
Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), a member of the climate committee, has introduced H.R. 7264, legislation similar to S. 3684, from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), that is being pitched as a coronavirus recovery measure.
It would provide $9 million in funding for a new conservation jobs training and placement program while bolstering existing federal restoration initiatives, providing logical landing spots for the young people who would be hired for this work.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also have bills — H.R. 4269 and S. 2452, respectively — that would create a job training program for reforestation and wetlands restoration work for young people from low-income or minority communities.
In expressing support for a 21st-century Civilian Conservation Corps, the climate panel also noted there should be "a focus on recruiting and hiring individuals from environmental justice communities and other underserved populations."