The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Schumer vows to take 63 million gas-powered cars off the road as part of climate plan

with Paulina Firozi


Charles E. Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, is rolling out a plan to spend billions of dollars to spur American drivers to buy electric and other low-emissions vehicles.

The proposal, released late Thursday, is a signal that establishment Democrats are heeding calls from the party’s activist base to go on offense on the issue of climate change after years of little action from the Senate under both Republican and Democratic leaders.

And it is squarely aimed at what is now the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States — the transportation sector, which recently surpassed power plants as the nation’s biggest contributor of greenhouse gases.

“This proposal to bring clean cars to all of America will be a key component of the far-reaching climate legislation from Senate Democrats, and I’m proud it has a broad coalition of support,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

The success of proposals such as Schumer’s will determine whether the United States can curtail the nation’s contributions to climate change and help forestall further warming that scientists from around the world consider dangerous. Schumer’s office estimates its plan would take 63 million gasoline-powered cars off the road by 2030.

But it comes with a big price tag: $392 billion over 10 years.

The plan is essentially “Cash for Clunkers” on steroids, harking back to an early Obama administration scrappage program that encouraged motorists to trade in older cars for newer and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Under the program, car owners who trade in a gasoline-powered vehicle for a new plug-in electric, plug-in hybrid, or hydrogen fuel-cell car will get a rebate starting at $3,000, potentially going up by thousands of dollars the farther a vehicle can go without recharging. In many instances, that rebate would far exceed the existing $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles.

The plan, which doesn't have any legislative text yet, would also give another $45 billion in funding to states and cities to install charging stations and other infrastructure. It would also dedicate $17 billion to two grant programs to build new factories for electric vehicles and to remodel factories that make cars with internal-combustion engines or parts for them.

"You might object: Isn’t the transition to electric vehicles already happening?" Schumer writes in a New York Times op-ed announcing his plan. "Yes, but it is progressing too slowly."

Schumer’s ideas stand virtually no chance of becoming law with Republicans in control of the Senate and President Trump in the White House. But the plan is part of a promise the senator from New York is making to bring major climate legislation to the Senate floor should Democrats win the chamber in the 2020 election and he be chosen by his peers as majority leader.

Schumer’s low-emission vehicle proposal has the support of traditional Democratic allies who often don’t see eye-to-eye on environmental and labor issues but can bring lobbying might to enacting this plan.

Backers include the United Auto Workers, the major union representing automotive employees, as well as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the carmakers General Motors and Ford Motor Co., both of which are heavily investing in electric vehicles; and several major green groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The proposal, said Gary Jones, president of the United Auto Workers, “honors the sweat and sacrifice of American autoworkers by investing in domestic manufacturing.” 

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, noted that Congress has some history of passing clean-car legislation on a bipartisan basis. In 2007, for example, a Democratic-led Congress and President George W. Bush together raised fuel efficiency standards for cars.

“We’d love to see a redux of that,” she said.

But more recent proposals to prop up the sale of electric vehicles have faced stiff opposition this Congress from the oil industry, which makes the gasoline that runs the engines dominating roadways, as well as politicians from petroleum-producing states.

Over the past year, oil lobbyists and conservative allies sustained an intense lobbying battle against the extension of existing electric vehicle tax credits, which have expired for Tesla and GM cars and will whittle away for several more makes in coming years.

“The EV tax credit has served its purpose,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote in a letter this month in opposition to extension of the tax break. “Over one million EVs are currently on America’s roads.”

One point of criticism he and other critics raise is that the vast majority of the tax credits are scooped up by those making more than $100,000 a year.

In an apparent effort to address that discrepancy, Schumer’s proposal gives low-income drivers an extra cash incentive for buying either new or used low-emissions vehicles.


— A large majority of Americans would rather reduce oil and gas exploration than "drill, baby, drill": That's according to new numbers from a public opinion poll published by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

  • By the numbers: "Just over half, 51 percent, said energy exploration should be reduced on federal lands, and 53 percent said it should be reduced offshore. Another 32 percent said it should stay as is on both federal lands and waters," The Post's Darryl Fears and Scott Clement report. "About 13 or 14 percent support an increase in drilling on public lands and at sea."
  • Nation's views are at odds with the Trump administration: "The poll comes as the Trump administration is issuing hundreds of new permits to explore for fossil fuels on taxpayer-owned land, particularly in the West. The administration is also considering a plan that would open 95 percent of the outer continental shelf to leasing and potentially drilling, making it the largest proposed expansion in U.S. history."
  • A stark partisan divide: More than two-thirds of Democrats said drilling on public lands should be scaled back. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats favor a decrease in offshore drilling, while only 20 percent of Republicans favored a drilling rollback onshore and 26 percent offshore.

— Federal watchdog report finds oil companies received windfall from loophole: A new report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that a loophole in a law allowed some of the largest oil companies in the world to skip out on paying the government at least $18 billion in royalties on drilled oil and gas beginning in 1996. The companies include Chevron, Shell, BP and ExxonMobil. “The companies, which hold government leases to drill in the Gulf, continue to extract oil and gas from those wells while not being required to pay royalties, a right the industry has gone to court to defend,” the New York Times reports. “…The mistake cuts into federal coffers. Royalties from offshore oil and gas are a significant source of revenue, bringing in almost $90 billion from 2006 through 2018, according to the agency.”

  • Lawmakers respond: House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who along with Rep. Alan S. Lowenthal (D-Calif.) released the GAO report, said the result of the loophole was “handing out public money to special interests that don’t need them, don’t deserve them and aren’t paying their fair share.” “Corporate welfare at taxpayer expense is everywhere in our economy, and we have to rip it out at the roots,” Grijalva said in a statement.
  • The administration's response: “The Interior Department said it 'takes seriously' its responsibility to ensure that the American public receives a fair value for public resources,” the Times adds. “Still, some parts of the report “do not paint a representative picture” of the agency’s efforts, Casey Hammond, acting assistant secretary for land and minerals, said in the agency’s response.” 
  • Meanwhile: Revenue from drilling on public lands increased more than 30 percent in the 2019 fiscal year, jumping $2.76 billion from the previous year to $11.69 billion, Reuters reports, citing new data from the Interior Department.

— Another pair of advisory boards nixed at EPA: The agency is recommending its Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board and the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology be cut, following Trump's order directing federal agencies to eliminate at least a third of their advisory committees. Members of the two panels were told last week of the move, E&E News reports. “Mike Delaney, a member of ELAB, told E&E News that the panel was a conduit from the environmental testing lab community to EPA regulators, especially for the drinking water, wastewater and site investigation programs, and served to bring issues to the agency's attention,” per the report. Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told E&E that shuttering the panels will give the public less say in agency policy. 

— 2020 watch:

  • Kamala Harris’s plan to hold oil and utility companies accountable: The California Democrat told Mother Jones in an interview that the federal government should “absolutely” play a role in investigating fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change. She cited Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest utility, which was pushed into bankruptcy as it faced billions in legal liabilities for sparking deadly wildfires, as one of the companies that should be held to account. “This was the first time Harris has weighed in on the utility’s role after power shut-offs in her home state,” Mother Jones reports.
  • Buttigieg talks to Cosmo about his climate plan: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg acknowledged that multiple Democratic primary candidates have plans to achieve a carbon-neutral economy in the next three decades, but said in an interview with Cosmopolitan that the “difference is whose plan can actually get it done?” “Because we can’t go on like this where something as fundamental, as dangerous, and as existential as the threat of climate change is being treated as something that you could be for or against. It would be like being for or against treating cancer. This is real. It is deadly. And we’ve got to come together and do something about it,” he said. He referred to parts of his plan, including having the military to play a large role in reducing fuel use and the farming industry-targeted sustainable solutions. 
A fast-moving Northern California wildfire driven by fierce winds threatened the Sonoma County town of Geyserville on Oct. 24, prompting mandatory evacuations. (Video: Reuters)

—  A PG&E transmission line broke where Kincade Fire started: California’s largest utility told state regulators that although it shutdown smaller distribution lines, some high-voltage transmission lines were still powered and one broke near where the fast-moving Kincade Fire started. The fire forced thousands of residents in Sonoma County to evacuate in a region that’s in parts still recovering from a deadly 2017 fire, The Post’s Reis Thebault, Kim Bellware and Andrew Freedman report

  • “We still, at this point, do not know what exactly happened”: That’s what PG&&E chief executive Bill Johnson said at a news conference. The company is still investigating and has not accepted responsibility for the Kincade Fire. Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) criticized all three of the state’s investor-owned power companies for how they've handled wildfire prevention. “I must confess, it is infuriating beyond words,” Newsom said, saying utilities have neglected infrastructure, leaving power lines at risk of sparking fires.

— How Trump’s golf courses could benefit from one environmental rule rollback: Golf courses located near bodies of water are expected to be one key beneficiary of the Trump administration’s move to roll back the Obama-era Clean Water Rule. The change rolled back the 2015 rule that expanded federal authority over water bodies. “Trump owns a dozen U.S. golf courses that could be affected by changes under the rule, and some opponents of the changes are arguing that regulatory rollbacks are equivalent to personal payments barred by the Constitution,” E&E News reports.


Can tens of thousands of mussels help save the polluted Anacostia River? (Fenit Nirappil)


Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands holds a legislative hearing on Oct. 29.
  • The House Small Business Subcommittee on Innovation and Workforce Development holds a hearing on a clean energy workforce on Oct. 29.
  • The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment Subcommittee holds a hearing on “Fuel Efficiency Rollbacks on the Climate, Car Companies and California” on Oct. 29.
  • The Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on “Dark Money and Barriers to Climate Action" on Oct. 29.



— What rats in tiny cars have to do with mental health: Researchers trained lab rats to drive tiny cars, and the research appeared to show that driving reduced the rats's stress, The Post's Lateshia Beachum writes. “The results of this research could help scientists understand anxiety and depression in humans.” 

University of Richmond researchers have successfully trained rats to drive small "RatCars" for their October study on mental illnesses. (Video: University of Richmond)