Lawmakers had one last chance this year to pass legislation that could have spurred the United States to adopt cleaner sources of energy more quickly. But they seem to have just squandered the opportunity.
The $1.4 trillion spending package approved by the House on Tuesday does not include a number of measures aimed at propping up alternatives to power generation and transportation that forgo burning fossil fuels, a primary contribution to the runaway warming climate scientists say the world has precious little time to avert.
The must-pass spending bill was seen as one of the only remaining ways before the 2020 presidential election to move forward with legislation that tackles climate change.
A majority of House Democrats supported creating or extending tax breaks — lawmakers' favorite tool for supporting renewable energy — for solar energy, offshore wind turbines, electric vehicles and big batteries.
But almost none of those tax credits made it into the final deal.
Democrats say the week began with a tentative agreement between both parties that contained several of those clean energy provisions. But the White House objected to their inclusion, Democrats said, so they were pulled from the final deal to avoid a government shutdown before the holidays.
“We're missing a huge opportunity,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chair of the House and Commerce subcommittee on climate change and the environment. “To say I'm disappointed is an understatement.” Tonko had led more than 160 House Democrats urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in an open letter in October to “prioritize” including the clean energy tax credits in the final spending deal with Republicans.
In particular, the oil and natural gas industry, a major ally of President Trump, vigorously lobbied against an expansion of a tax break for buyers of cars that need little to no gasoline to run.
Democrats say the Trump administration decided to side with the oil sector over General Motors and other automakers, which had mounted their own campaign in Congress this year to save the dwindling tax credit for electric vehicles.
The White House, said Rep. Dan Kildee, “made it very clear that everything but electric vehicles is on the table.” The Michigan Democrat added that Trump “fell flat” in protecting Midwestern auto manufactures by refusing to subsidize the sale of low- to no-emissions cars. Elsewhere, the spending bill was filled to the brim with tax relief for everything from beer breweries and whiskey distilleries to churches with parking lots.
The package did fulfill one major Democratic demand: Sustaining funding at energy and environmental agencies. The spending bill boosts funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by $208 million and increases funding for basic scientific research at the Energy Department by $415 million, despite efforts by the White House to slash spending within the two departments.
And the final package does have a handful of provisions supporting alternative energy. Tax credits for biodiesel fuel, energy-efficiency projects and some wind turbines were extended. The bill also revived several expired tax breaks for geothermal, electric scooters and some other technologies.
Yet some of the tax breaks are retroactive, which means they do little to nothing to incentivize more investment in clean energy now.
Greg Wetstone, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, in particular lamented the loss of tax breaks for energy storage projects.
The cost of wind and solar power have dropped a lot, but those sources of power often generate electricity when consumers don't need it. Big batteries and other ways of storing energy helped solve the problem, but those technologies are still expensive.
“It's an ideal, prototypical situation for a tax incentive,” Wetstone said.
Beyond energy and environmental policy, Democrats point to a grab bag of victories on issues in the legislation that motivate their voting base. It would provide funding for gun research and stabilize pensions for tens of thousands of miners after a string of bankruptcies among coal-mining firms.
The tax bill comes off the heels of a deal last week between Democrats and Trump on a new North American trade pact — a major priority for the president — that also contained little that reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
With many environmentalists livid over a lack of wins for them as the year closes, the fallout from the failure to give tax relief for renewable energy producers could extend to the ballot box in 2020.
Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, a usually staunch environmental ally for Democrats based in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) hometown of San Francisco, even threatened on Twitter to challenge sitting House Democrats in primaries.
The Sierra Club and our more than 4 million members and supporters will not, and cannot accept failure when it comes to protecting our climate for our children and future generations.— Michael Brune (@bruneski) December 17, 2019
— More from the spending bill: The massive spending package also boosts funding to battle wildfires, delivering a legislative win for California and other Western states still recovering from multiple seasons of damaging blazes. The measure increases funding used to fight fires by $1.9 billion over the previous year. The deal also “ends a long-standing practice known as ‘fire-borrowing,’ which required the Forest Service to raid its other funds whenever it ran out of money to pay for fighting wildfires,” the Los Angeles Time reports. “ … If Congress approves the spending package, the Forest Service will be able to withdraw money from a FEMA emergency fund during especially severe fire seasons, just as the government does for hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.”
— Legal battle over this bird heads to the 9th Circuit: Interior Department officials have asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review a decision by a federal judge to temporarily halt the government’s rule that changes the 2015 Obama-era policy protecting the greater sage grouse. U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill had determined federal scientists had not done enough analysis on impacts on the bird.
- What the federal government wants: “In addition to appealing the preliminary injunction to the 9th Circuit, Interior is also challenging Winmill's order denying the government's motion to dismiss for improper venue, or to allow the claims to be heard in a different court,” E&E News reports. “…Sarah Stellberg, a staff attorney for Advocates for the West, said the environmental groups opposing the Trump administration's sage grouse plan had expected the government to challenge Winmill's ruling.”
— One step closer to another national park: The massive defense bill the Senate sent to the president’s desk on Tuesday includes language to designate the White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico.
- The details: The site became a national monument in 1933. The new designation through the NDAA “includes a land exchange with the Department of Defense to better safeguard the missile range which borders the monument,” according to the National Wildlife Federation.
- The reaction: Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who introduced the measure along with Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), praised the passage of the measure and said the new designation will be a “major boon to the whole region’s economy.”
— House bill looks to address emissions from public lands: Democratic lawmakers from the House Natural Resources Committee introduced a sweeping bill that aims to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from public lands by 2040. The American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act is “one of the most aggressive climate bills that’s been introduced in the current Congress,” Vox reports.
- The details: The bill “starts with a year-long pause on new fossil fuel leases. During this time, the Interior Department and the US Forest Service would have to craft a strategic plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
- To quote: “By transitioning away from coal, oil, gas extraction and making our public lands and waters pollution-free by 2040, we will add a major contribution to combat climate change, protect our current and future generations from the greatest consequential challenge and threat we face, which is climate change,” Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said during a news conference.
— Government responsible for flooded homes during Harvey: A U.S. judge has ruled the federal government is liable for up to $1 billion in flood-related damage for thousands of homes and businesses in the Houston area that flooded during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. That’s because those structures were built “within an upstream area U.S. Army Corps of Engineers knew would be flooded by overflows from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs during an extreme storm,” Bloomberg News reports.
- The details: “The judge ruled the government illegally stored floodwater on private property without the landowners’ permission, in violation of the Takings Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment,” per the report. “The Takings Clause prohibits the government from using private property for public use without just compensation.”
Meanwhile, the EPA watchdog criticized federal and state agencies' post-Harvey response: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General found in a report out this week that the agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality failed to appropriately respond to air pollution concerns during Harvey. In the days after the storm hit Houston, petrochemical and other facilities released toxic chemicals into the air, but state and federal regulators did not keep track of air quality, Grist reports.
- The details: “The report found that the EPA and TCEQ did not collect data when emissions of numerous carcinogenic chemicals were at their peak. And when they did begin conducting air monitoring, the agencies collected data that could not be used to draw meaningful conclusions about the risks to public health,” per the report.
— It’s not the end for coal just yet: Even as climate policies ramp up to curb carbon emissions in the face of the warming planet, the International Energy Agency says there won’t be a major decline in coal demand over the next half-decade. According to the latest report from the IEA, coal use will “decline slightly this year but then stay steady through 2024,” E&E News reports. “…Public opposition to coal is growing, major investors are thinking twice, natural gas and renewables are booming, and a few countries have even pledged to go coal-free, but the world consumes more of the fossil fuel now than it did before the 2015 Paris Agreement.” The report adds: “Expectations of an imminent coal collapse have come and gone before.”
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds hearings to examine the impacts of wildfire on electric grid reliability and efforts to mitigate wildfire risk and increase grid resiliency on Thursday.
- The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on the economic effects of climate change on Thursday.
— Take a look back at some of the Post graphics team's favorite projects of the year: The Post's Tim Meko shared his maps of natural disasters across the United States.