The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Conservative groups at odds with new House GOP climate change proposals

with Meryl Kornfield


House Republicans call their plan for tackling climate change “realistic.” Right-wing think tanks call it a “Green New Deal Lite.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other top House Republicans find themselves at odds with a series of conservative lobbying groups in Washington over what to do about rising global temperatures.

In the face of shifting poll numbers, top House Republicans are hoping to turn over a new green leaf with a fresh package of climate bills that addresses climate change by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air rather than cutting the use of oil and natural gas.

“The one thing that unites us all as Americans is that we do want a cleaner, safer and healthier environment,” McCarthy told reporters Wednesday morning.

Yet a fleet of right-wing think tanks, which for decades have enjoyed considerable sway over Republican environmental policy and have made a name for themselves railing against the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, aren't yet willing to recognize the reality of human-caused climate change yet.

"The sponsors of these bills seem to be conceding the argument about whether global warming is the sort of problem or crisis that needs government action," said Myron Ebell, an executive at one of those conservative groups, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who sees alarm among environmentalists about global warming as a pretext for expanding government. He led Trump's transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The scuffle shows how the GOP may struggle to bring nuance to its stance on climate change after years of outright denying the science.

The tussle touched off Wednesday when McCarthy and several other Republicans formally introduced four bills addressing climate change. 

Among the proposals is the Trillion Trees Act, sponsored by forester-turned-congressman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), which would commit the United States to planting a multitude of new trees to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

The package would also expand and make permanent a tax break, signed into law by President Trump in 2018, for companies that capture and sequester carbon dioxide before it leaves smokestacks. Another bill would increase funding for research and development at the Energy Department for using carbon capture at natural gas plants. 

The proposal stops far short of the sort of climate policies over which Democrats debate, which includes banning fracking and ending exports of oil and gas. 

Still, one by one on Wednesday, think tanks normally allied with House Republicans issued statements saying they didn't like the GOP proposal either.

Thomas Pyle, who runs the lobbying arm of the Institute for Energy Research, which is supported by the oil industry and the Charles Koch-backed group Freedom Partners, called the House GOP proposal "a slippery slope to a slightly less intrusive Green New Deal." 

David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, promised to withhold endorsements from any lawmaker who supports the bills and argued "these measures will not make a single environmentalist vote for a Republican."

And Ebell at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which once received considerable funding from ExxonMobil, lamented that the tree initiative may get in the way of other environmental priorities, like clearing small trees and other underbrush that fuel forest fires.

"The fact is that we have far too many trees in our national forests," said Ebell.

In response, Westerman emphasized the need to lock carbon out of the atmosphere and the fact that trees are "the most natural, pragmatic and economical carbon capture device we have."

"That’s proven science," he said late Wednesday. "No matter where you fall on the climate debate, we should all get behind using our natural resources to clean air and filter water." 

"I welcome anyone into my office to discuss policy," he added.

For most of last year, Republicans both on and off Capitol Hill found common cause in deriding the Green New Deal, a left-wing manifesto calling for sweeping cuts to climate-warming emissions by the end of the decade.

Yet at the same time, pollsters saw rising concern among young Republicans who think the party is behind the times on climate change.

Nearly 1 in 4 Republicans disapprove of Trump's handling of climate change, substantially higher than the 9 percent who disapprove of his job performance overall, according to a survey conducted last summer by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Among those who approve of President Trump’s overall job performance, his approval rating on climate change was 73 percent, which was the lowest out of six questions asked.

Standing on the sidelines for now is the Trump White House, which so far is mum about the climate package in the House. Though Trump famously called climate change a “hoax,” his message has been a lot more mixed lately.

Last month, the president announced his support of an initiative to plant 1 trillion trees worldwide, in line with Westerman's bill. Yet in the same speech in Switzerland during the World Economic Forum, he insisted “the perennial prophets of doom” are wrong about climate change.


— Largest oil spill was actually larger: In a study published Wednesday, researchers say the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was far worse than previously thought, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. University of Miami researchers found “invisible oil” concentrated below the water’s surface and toxic enough to destroy 50 percent of the marine life it encountered. 

  • The stats: While it was previously thought there were 210 million gallons of oil released and spread out over the equivalent of 92,500 miles, new research indicates the oil’s reach was 30 percent larger than that estimate. 
  • Trump angle: Trump’s administration is considering expanding leases in the Gulf, as well as allowing the oil and gas industry to buy leases in every part of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
  • More BP news: The news of the study comes as BP, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, announced on Wednesday that it would try to slash its own greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. BP said it will shift investments into energy projects that do not emit carbon dioxide, cut the carbon content of the products it sells by 50 percent by 2050 and install methane measurement equipment at all its processing sites by 2023 so it can cut leakage.

— Public lands management package passed House: On Wednesday, the House passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, which provides additional protections for 1.37 million acres of public land on the West Coast. The act, introduced by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and others, was a package of six land-protection bills that passed out of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

— Bills banning fracking introduced in House and Senate: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.) introduced a bill in the House on Wednesday that would ban fracking nationally by 2025. The bill is a companion to one in the Senate, proposed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

— This past short winter could be a trend: Studies indicate the Mid-Atlantic may become more southern in the coming decades, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. In the Washington area, there has been a recent streak of 20 consecutive mild days, and the lowest temperature of the winter was 22 degrees. 

  • What that feels like: “This means shorter winters with far less bite,” Samenow writes. “From a practical standpoint, you may find yourself needing your heavy coats, scarves and hats far less, and hitting the golf links rather than the ski slopes.” 

‘We knew they had cooked the books’

A rare Trump-era climate policy hits an obstacle: the tax man


Coming up:

  • The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs will hold a hearing entitled “Surface Transportation Reauthorization: Public Transportation Stakeholders’ Perspectives" on Tuesday, Feb. 25.


Top dog: Of the 2,500 worthy dogs who entered the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Siba, a standard poodle, won best in show at the 144th annual event, The Post's Michael Brice-Saddler reports