How reliable is Fetterman on climate?

By Emma Dumain | 04/12/2024 06:31 AM EDT

The Pennsylvania Democrat’s stance on the EPA tailpipe rule is alarming greens. A Fetterman aide says an “all-of-the-above” approach is needed to “save the climate.”

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)

Environmental advocates are watching how Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) handles an upcoming vote on emissions from cars. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Even before he was elected to the Senate in 2022, John Fetterman was largely considered a Democratic ally on energy and climate. He won endorsements from green groups like the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. He called climate change “an existential threat” while urging a quick transition to clean energy.

But the Pennsylvanian is now raising alarms among environmental advocates, who are running ads seeking to sway him on a pending bill that would kill a Biden administration rule cutting vehicle emissions. Fetterman has declined to say how he’ll vote but has given signals he’s uneasy about the EPA proposal.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president for government affairs, called Fetterman’s current public stance “perplexing and concerning” and said LCV was “urging him to publicly commit to voting ‘no.’”


The concern comes as Fetterman, just over a year into his first term, has questioned the Biden administration’s decision to pause new liquefied natural gas exports. He also gave a thumb’s up to a recent op-ed from moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) applauding the administration for increased oil, gas and renewable energy production. In the past, Fetterman has offered contradictory statements on fracking, which is critical to his home state, but now says he supports it.

An aide to Fetterman, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said the senator believes “the transition from fossil fuels isn’t going to happen overnight and that we need an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach to save the climate.”

But green groups continue to be perplexed by his refusal to commit to voting to uphold the EPA vehicle emissions rule.

Liz Green Schultz, political director for the Pennsylvania-based Clean Air Action Fund, said that “as someone who runs a political nonprofit with a public health and environmental focus, I’m not comfortable with the choices that [Fetterman] is making and the way that he is framing these issues.”

She continued, “Of course everyone needs to be mindful of jobs and accessibility of safe transportation to people, but to me, that is not what this is about. I don’t understand his motivations.”

At issue is an EPA rule, announced in March, that would mandate a major emissions reduction for cars and small trucks as a means of forcing auto manufacturers to make vehicles that produce a lower carbon footprint, like electric vehicles. EPA has estimated that under the rule 68 percent of new cars sold in 2032 will be electric vehicles. Republicans have uniformly blasted the rule as a de facto EV mandate.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)
Fetterman speaks with reporters at the Capitol in March. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Fetterman’s immediate response was that the contours of the rule “seem[ed] aggressive, and I know a lot of American consumers are uncertain about EVs.”

As he told E&E News at the time, “I haven’t even purchased one, and I don’t anticipate purchasing one in the immediate future, and I understand why we want to migrate more towards that, but at the end of the day, perhaps [the rule] might be overly aggressive.”

He also didn’t exclude the possibility of voting on a resolution that Republicans have pledged to bring to the Senate floor under the Congressional Review Act to reverse the rulemaking, a procedural maneuver that only requires a simple majority for adoption.

“I just know that it’s part of a conversation that we need to have,” Fetterman said, “and I think we need to respond to what seems to be the American consumer sentiment, [which] seems to be diminished … enthusiasm for EVs.”

On Thursday, he confirmed he was likewise undecided on how he’ll vote on separate legislation from Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), S. 4072, which would have the same effect as the planned CRA resolution to overturn the tailpipe emissions rule but would be subject to a 60-vote threshold for passage.

That bill, which Senate Democratic leadership agreed to bring up as a favor to Republicans for not delaying broader negotiations over an unrelated government spending package last month, is expected to be considered next week. The Biden administration has said it would veto the bill if it passed Congress.

In a statement to E&E News, Fetterman spokesperson Carrie Adams said the senator would “make a decision on the Crapo bill in consultation with his team if and when it comes to the floor.”

She added, “Senator Fetterman considers every issue and every vote as a Pennsylvanian first.”

Transition won’t ‘happen overnight’

Fetterman’s skepticism around the tailpipe rule is just the latest in a series of positions he has taken over the last six months that have confounded progressives who previously thought the first-term senator — a tattooed, hoodie-wearing opponent of the filibuster — was one of them.

“We haven’t always agreed on every single issue, but we thought on balance he had a strong record, and we were proud to endorse him,” said Sittenfeld of LCV.

Fetterman has a lifetime voting score of 86 percent from the group — a rating that reflects some of the key votes he missed while on leave for treatment for depression. The majority of those missed votes were considered “excused” by the organization, meaning they didn’t count against his overall score.

Yet in February, Fetterman expressed concern about the Biden administration’s decision to put a pause of new liquefied natural gas export facilities, saying he would lobby against the pause “if this decision puts Pennsylvania energy jobs at risk.”

And in more support of Manchin’s op-ed, Fetterman posted on social media, “We don’t have to grovel to evil nations like Russia or terrorism backers in the Middle East for our energy. Energy security is national security” — borrowing more conservative rhetoric on energy issues.

David Masur, the executive director of the nonprofit PennEnvironment, said Fetterman’s moderate streak shouldn’t surprise anybody who has watched him maneuver in state politics over the years.

But Masur conceded he was “surprised” by Fetterman’s choice to lean so hard into being undecided on the tailpipe rule: He’s not up for reelection for another five years, nor does he represent a state with a heavy auto industry that could be affected by the transition to EV production.

An electric vehicle is seen charging.
An electric vehicle is seen charging at the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. The Biden administration estimates that under its new tailpipe emissions rule, more than two-thirds of cars sold in 2032 will be electric. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

The Fetterman aide described the lawmaker’s decisionmaking metrics as both pragmatic and consistent.

“As with all CRAs and efforts to undo administration policies, Senator Fetterman considers the impact on Pennsylvania; impact on labor and working people; the intent of original rule; President Biden’s intent; and the intent of Republicans in pushing for the policy change (especially whether it’s just political theatre or actually about reasonable policy differences),” the aide said in an email to E&E News.

As for Fetterman’s position on climate change, the aide continued, the senator believes “Republicans need to be honest that climate change is happening and that we have to address it, but Democrats need to be honest that the transition from fossil fuels isn’t going to happen overnight and that we need an ‘all of the above’ approach to save the climate — and that includes bringing along folks that might be reluctant to change.”

Since his election to Congress in 2022, Fetterman’s engagement on climate issues has followed such a trend.

He has consistently expressed his opposition to Big Oil special interests, including co-signing a July 2023 letter asking that the Justice Department investigate whether major fossil fuel companies have violated federal law in conspiring to cover up their industry’s contributions to worsening global warming.

“I have never taken a dime from the fossil fuel industry, and I never will,” he said on his official campaign website. “So you can be assured that any vote I take when it comes to energy production and climate will be what I believe is right — not what fossil fuel executives tell me to do.”

But as a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he has also challenged climate advocates about the value of virtue signaling.

At a hearing last November on efforts to decarbonize industrial materials like steel by using carbon-intensive forms of hydrogen, he questioned colleagues on whether they were actually “greenwashing” the process at the expense of existing union jobs at steel plants, including the factory across the street from his home in Braddock.

“I would very much like to decarbonize steel,” he said, “but … are we being honest about decarbonizing an industry like that?”

Green lobbying push

When it comes to the coordinated effort from the environmental community to force Fetterman’s hand on the tailpipe rule, advocates say they’re preparing to deploy a variety of tactics.

LCV has a letter out to all senators urging a “no” vote against the Crapo bill, calling it “a blatant attack on the Clean Air Act and EPA, and would undermine our ability to drive down vehicle pollution and spur the domestic auto manufacturing economy.”

The Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club has put out a digital ad asking voters to “tell Sen. Fetterman not to side with the big polluters trying to repeal the EPA’s cleaner cars standard.”

The group’s executive director, Tom Schuster, plans to separately appeal to Fetterman’s record of supporting frontline communities as a local elected official.

“This is a serious climate issue; it’s almost as serious an environmental justice issue [affecting]people, especially children, living and attending school near major transportation corridors,” Shuster said of the tailpipe rule. “We know this is important to Fetterman.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists is shopping around a state-specific fact sheet on the “Electric Vehicle Benefits for Pennsylvania,” noting the state’s growing EV charging infrastructure and explaining that EVs are increasingly workable on rural terrain.

Steven Higashide, director of the group’s Clean Transportation program, said the fact sheet has been shared directly with Fetterman’s office.

He noted that Fetterman made comments “the day that the rule came out, and now that we’ve had some time to dig into the rule, it’s very clear that this is a flexible standard that relies on safe technology — it’s not an EV mandate — and we’re happy to help explain that and point out that consumer interest in EVS and high and continue to grow.”

Of the more than half a dozen advocates interviewed by E&E News, all expressed hope that Fetterman was ultimately hedging and would eventually come around to their side of the issue.

Fetterman did inspire some cautious optimism among the advocates earlier this week, when he voted against a CRA that would to overturn a Transportation Department rule on greenhouse gas emissions from state and local highway projects. Democratic Sens. Manchin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana, alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), voted for it.

PennEnvironment’s Masur said there is still time for Fetterman to decide to vote “no” on reversing the tailpipe rule, too.

“Pennsylvania has a longstanding chronic air pollution problem; in many of our metro areas, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, it’s unsafe to breathe the air 100 days year,” Masur said.

“With one of the oldest populations in the country, the most vulnerable population to air pollution would be protected. So you’d hope [Fetterman] would be wanting to make sure his constituents have clean air to breathe.”