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The Energy 202: A Republican and Democrat form a climate caucus. What can they get done?

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with Paulina Firozi


It has been about a decade since the Senate seriously kicked around ideas for tackling climate change on a bipartisan basis. Now, two senators are hoping to change that.

Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) announced Wednesday they are forming the first Senate bipartisan caucus focused on finding solutions to climate change that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

But the senators have a tough road ahead of them if they want to build legislation on an issue that many Republicans, including President Trump, refuse to acknowledge as a scientific reality. The new caucus is a sign while moderate compromises are possible, a big comprehensive bipartisan climate bill is still far away. But the pair suggested a deal may be what's necessary to address the warming of the planet in the long term.

"I'm dear friends with Joe Donnelly," Coons said of the Indiana Democrat that Braun unseated last year. "One of the challenges of serving here is you've got to be willing to extend your hand and say, 'Great to meet you. Welcome to the Senate. What can we work together on?' "

Braun, who halls from a state hit this year with devastating floods, does not count himself among those doubters about human contributions to rising temperatures. “I just know when you put carbon into the air, it creates a greenhouse effect,” he said in an interview with Coons. “That's chemistry and physics. And I think if you keep doing it, it's going to get harder to fix than nipping it in the bud.”

The creation of the caucus comes as many Senate Democrats, including those running to unseat Trump from the White House, pitch a series of proposals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions far more aggressive than what was pursued during the Obama administration, spooking many conservatives.

Yet at the same time, a handful of Washington Republicans are cautiously wading into the debate about how Congress can combat climate change, often by promoting innovations in types of carbon power generation with little to no carbon footprint. The last time Republicans and Democrats in the Senate seriously tried hammering out a climate bill with a chance of passing was the cap-and-trade bill in 2010.

“There have been a lot of private conversations, and now some of those conversations are becoming public,” said Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions, a group of conservative business leaders interested in advancing a revenue-neutral carbon tax. “As the politics of climate change are evolving, Republican members in particular have struggled to identify policies” to support.

Only one other Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski from the quickly warming state of Alaska, has committed to joining the caucus so far, though Braun expects to add more Republican members in the coming weeks. The two senators want to keep an equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the caucus.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

A similar climate caucus in the House is still trying to find its footing after its Republican ranks were decimated in the 2018 elections. Rep. Francis Rooney, who replaced fellow South Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo as the top GOP member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, has struggled to find more than just one other GOP co-sponsor for a carbon tax bill designed to cut payroll taxes. And Rooney recently announced his retirement in 2020.

“We haven't had a lot of success recruiting a lot of co-sponsors,” Rooney said. “But there are more Republicans talking about climate change as something that needs to be addressed. So I'll take that as optimistically a good step.”

Placing a price on carbon, which would encourage companies to invest in lower-emission methods of generating electricity and moving people around, is popular among many economists. Even some elder GOP statesmen have warmed to the idea. Former secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz have suggested putting in place a $40-per-ton tax of carbon dioxide.

Both Braun and Coons said they are willing to consider that and other carbon pricing mechanisms. “I'm open to anything because I believe in science and markets and technology. You take those three things, I think that's what's going to drive us to solving the issue of climate change,” Braun said.

But the original Baker-Shultz proposal came with a compromise: In exchange for taxing carbon emissions, Congress would cut air regulations and limit lawsuits against oil companies. (Last month, the coalition backed away from the idea of shielding those companies from court cases.)

“In my caucus, the idea of permanently rolling back all regulatory power for the EPA for greenhouse gases?” Coons said. “That's a tough sell.”

“I don't think that would happen,” Braun added.

Braun said he and Coons hope to pick off “low-hanging fruit," or legislative ideas that should find broad bipartisan support.

That may include more research dollars toward clean energy and improvements in energy efficiency, Coons said. Among the ideas that Braun, who chairs the Senate Environmental and Public Works subcommittee on nuclear safety, backs is investing in the next generation of smaller and conceptually safer nuclear reactions.

But there are clearly limits to the comradery. Last week, Braun and most Senate Republicans voted to keep a Trump administration regulation on coal-fired power plants that congressional Democrats have decried as too weak.

Trump doubled down on that message in a speech during a shale conference Wednesday in Pittsburgh by promoting his reversal of environmental policies under Obama, including the repeal of the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants and the approval of permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

“I promised that, as president, I’d unleash American energy like never before, because our natural resources do not belong to the government,” Trump said. “They belong to the people of this country. And I am proud to declare that I have delivered on every single promise I made.” He later said: “You’ll never have another president like me. That’s for sure.”


— More on Trump's Pittsburgh speech: 

  • Trump heaped praise on his administration’s energy efforts: Trump said the energy industry was “under assault” when he entered the White House. He pointed to an liquefied natural gas plant he recently visited in Louisiana, which he said was a “dead project, and I had it approved almost immediately.” CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale pointed out, however, that it got it approvals during the Obama administration.
  • Harold Hamm introduced Trump: The oil and gas business executive and Trump campaign donor called the president a “champion for U.S. energy.” Trump returned the favor by telling a story about Hamm and paper straws. He said former football coach Barry Switzer once said about Hamm in a meeting: “’You know, sir, that guy could take a straw’ — probably the plastic ones before they changed them. The paper straws aren’t working too well — ‘Sir, he could take a straw and put it into the ground and oil comes out.’”
  • Cabinet member shout-outs: He thanked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler for their work. He also praised outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who saluted him from the audience. Trump joked that the former Texas governor was “nasty” to him during the 2016 Republican primary but also a “gentleman.”

— Trump vs. California: The Trump administration escalated its feud with California with a new lawsuit alleging that its cap-and-trade system, meant to limit air pollution, is unconstitutional.

  • The claim: The lawsuits argue that because the program partners with Quebec, it needed to be done through the federal government, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Defendants have intruded into the federal sphere,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.
  • California's response: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) painted it as just the latest in the administration's "political vendetta against California, our climate policies and the health of our communities."

— Perry on the record: Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that he never heard Trump mention former vice president Joe Biden during his conversations with him about Ukraine.

  • To quote: "In our conversations dealing with this issue, I never heard the President say the words Biden. I never heard the word Biden mentioned, not from him, not from staff, not from the EU ambassador, not from Kurt Volker. Never one time was that said."
  • But: Perry couldn't explain why Trump brought up Biden during the now infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is at the center of House Democrats' impeachment inquiry. "I have no idea, you know, when the President said it on that phone call, the idea that somehow or another this was the main focus of his effort here," Perry said.

— Air pollution is getting worse, and people are dying: Last year alone, the worsening air quality was linked to nearly 10,000 additional deaths in the United States, compared with the 2016 level, The Post’s Christopher Ingraham reports. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that concentrations of fine-particle air pollution, known as PM2.5, rose 5.5 percent since 2016.

  • Why this is harmful: “Fine particles can damage a person’s respiratory system, accumulate in the brain and send people to the emergency room,” Ingraham writes. “The elderly appear to be especially susceptible to PM2.5, which has been linked to dementia and cognitive decline. And the data shows that many of the pollutant’s effects occur at levels well below current regulatory thresholds.”

— There’s a high fire risk in California: Starting Wednesday, there’s a heightened wildfire risk in Northern and central California, and Red Flag warnings will continue through Thursday night. There’s also an elevated risk of fires sparking in Southern California, where it will reach “extremely critical” levels between early Thursday through Friday, The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports.

  • That means more precautionary blackouts: “According to its website, PG&E plans to cut power to about 179,000 customers, including people in parts of Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties beginning Wednesday afternoon and lasting potentially through Thursday,” he adds. “Conditions in California wine country may be similar to the tinderbox conditions that were present when devastating fires erupted in 2017, destroying parts of Santa Rosa …. Separately, Southern California Edison is considering a preemptive cut to more than 162,000 customers in preparation for the Santa Ana event there, and San Diego Gas & Electric is also planning to cut power to the highest-risk areas.”
  • A wildfire sparked overnight in Sonoma County: The fast-spreading Kincade fire had already burned through 7,000 acres early Thursday morning, prompting evacuations for nearby residents, the Los Angeles Times reports. “If you feel unsafe, evacuate,” the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said in a Wednesday night advisory.


Coming Up

  • The Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on “Dark Money and Barriers to Climate Action" on Oct. 29. 


— A good omen: Hours before the Washington Nationals won its first World Series game in 86 years, Washingtonians marveled at an extra-red rainbow that appeared to form a perfect semicircle in the sky.