The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Senate Democrats are getting ready to push climate proposals

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Democrats are preparing a buffet of climate proposals to serve up in the coming months – seeking to move quickly after the coronavirus relief bill that President Biden and his allies in Congress are calling an urgent priority. 

Senate committee leaders are now coming up with ways to curb global warming in everything from the tax code to farming, after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told them climate would be a top priority amid a broader infrastructure push this spring.

“As the Biden administration prepares a whole-of-government approach to combating climate change,” Schumer said on the Senate floor, "the Democratic majority will pursue a whole-of-Senate approach as well.” 

A center of action for climate legislation will be the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Its new chairman, Sen. Thomas Carper (D), a close Biden ally from Delaware, is planning to shepherd through the 50-50 chamber the Kigali Amendment, a global pact to slash the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a group of human-made compounds that are among the most potent greenhouse gases. 

Biden told the State Department to send the treaty addressing the pollutants used in air conditioning and refrigerators to the Senate for ratification. Former president Donald Trump declined to do so despite requests from business groups representing manufacturers of alternative refrigerants. "It's possible to do that in a way that enhances, not degrades, economic opportunity," Carper said in a recent interview.

Senate Republicans backed efforts to rein in hydrofluorocarbons in a last round of coronavirus relief, but it remains to be seen if Biden can get 67 votes needed to approve the pact.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow is pushing to help farmers get paid for locking carbon in soil and out of the air.

“The most important thing is that we put in place the technical assistance and information so that our farmers and foresters feel comfortable” doing that, said the Michigan Democrat, who is now chairing the Senate Agriculture Committee.

She also said Congress should consider boosting funding for the New Deal-era Commodity Credit Corporation. 

Biden wants to use that government-owned financial institution to pay growers to farm sustainably. The Trump administration had relied on it to bail out farmers during trade tensions with China.

Sen. Ron Wyden wants the tax code to support Biden’s goal of eliminating greenhouse gases from the power sector by 2035.

One of the new Senate Finance Committee chairman's ideas is to dramatically simplify tax incentives for clean energy — combining 44 different ones currently on the books into just three tax breaks that a wider variety of businesses could use.

The Oregon Democrat urged Democrats to act quickly, telling reporters in a recent press conference: “I'm of the view that climate change is an existential threat and the window to avert the worst climate catastrophe is closing.”

And any infrastructure package coming out of the Senate is likely to include a massive tax incentive for car buyers to purchase electric vehicles, embraced by Schumer during the last Congress.

One big question for Democrats: Work with Republicans — or go it alone?

Many Senate Democrats say they want to negotiate with Republicans on climate change, noting that doing so usually leads to legislation less likely to being toppled when power changes hands in Washington. 

“I love to work across the aisle. Bipartisan solutions are lasting solutions," Carper said, noting that he worked with Republicans last year to write a transportation bill that would spend billions to increase the resiliency of roads and bridges to natural disasters and help states and cities build electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Carper would like to revive that legislation this year.

But Carper said his party needs to be prepared to act alone if the GOP appears unwilling to work with them on climate issues. “At the end of the day, if we're unable to do that and we have to use some other technique,” Carper added, “we'll do that.”

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) had worked with Stabenow on legislation tackling the impact agriculture is having on rising temperatures. 

But he said recent decisions by Biden to kill the Keystone XL pipeline and halt new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters makes it harder to come to compromises on climate change.

“I've been the most engaging Republican on the topic," he said, ”but I've got red lines that I don't want crossed. And it's already happened in a couple cases."

Power plays

The auto industry’s transition to electric vehicles will take more than airing a Super Bowl ad.

The General Motors ads during Sunday evening's broadcast — one of which featured actor Will Ferrell, Kenan Thompson of “Saturday Night Live” and actress and rapper Awkwafina promoting GM’s Ultium battery — came on the heels of an announcement by chief executive Mary Barra that the company aims to eliminate tailpipe emissions by 2035.

“It isn’t just GM. The global automobile business is peering into an all-electric future, the industry’s most profound turning point in a century and the most crucial since the 2009 financial crisis that saw GM go in and out of bankruptcy,” our colleague Steven Mufson reports.

“But there are many bumps in the road ahead. The carmaker of the future will have to be as much a battery or software company as it is a conventional engineering company. It will need networks of rapid recharging stations and massive new supply chains to meet demand for new parts, like lithium for batteries. New business models could alter the nature of car ownership — and undermine politically powerful dealers. And throughout, the big car companies must work to maintain peace with their unions,” Mufson writes.

Automakers have a long way to go. GM’s Chevrolet Bolt sales in the United States doubled in the fourth quarter of 2020 but remained 0.8 percent of the company's sales for the year. Meanwhile, EVs often cost more than conventional vehicles, many of which will remain on the road for the next 15 years or more.

The Biden administration is facing challenges in rebuilding the federal bureaucracy.

The past four years have seen the exodus of career staff, key jobs left unfulfilled and increased politicization of many departments, according to experts on the federal government. Now the Biden administration is figuring out how to restock the federal government and revamp agencies that have been plagued by low morale, our colleagues Dan Diamond, Lisa Rein and Juliet Eilperin report.

President Trump left a legacy of disillusionment and despondency across federal agencies. The Post's Lisa Rein and Tom Hamburger analyze Trump's lasting impact (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)
  • The Interior Department saw 287 employees retire or find new jobs after then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced in 2019 that he would move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo. 
  • The Agriculture Department, meanwhile, has struggled to staff research agencies that were relocated from the District to Kansas City.
  • And the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump officials repeatedly reassigned career officials who questioned the administration’s push to reverse environmental protections, instead padding key offices with political appointees. The number of Trump appointees in the EPA division handling congressional affairs — including oversight requests — more than doubled under the previous administration.
The United Nations reappoints Mike Bloomberg as its climate envoy.

The former New York mayor and billionaire will be charged with engaging governments and businesses on global warming. Bloomberg was first tapped for the position in 2018, the Associated Press reports.

Per the AP: “The U.N. said Friday that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wants the former New York mayor to ‘mobilize stronger and more ambitious climate action’ in the lead-up to a November global climate summit.” 

The summit, which was delayed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, will be held in Scotland. It is seen as a key moment to secure international commitment to combat climate change.

The Justice Department eliminated Trump-era directives on environmental enforcement.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jean Williams announced that the department has eliminated nine directives that were “inconsistent with longstanding Division policy and practice,” the Hill reports. Among the changes, the department will restore the use of Supplementary Environmental Projects in agency settlements, allowing companies to engage in environmental cleanup or habitat restoration to lessen fines for environmental violations. The projects are popular with both environmentalists and industry.

An Illinois judge finds that Trump’s Chicago hotel violated environmental laws.

The ruling, from Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sophia Hall, found that the Trump International Hotel in Chicago operated a water-intake system without a valid permit, our colleague David Fahrenthold reports.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general’s office that accused the hotel of missing a 2017 deadline to renew a permit for its water system, which sucks 19 million gallons of river water day, before returning it warmer to the river.

“Environmentalists say that water-intake systems like the ones at Trump’s hotel can harm fish by trapping them against screens at water intakes, and disrupt ecosystems with unnaturally warm water,” Fahrenthold writes.


Blockbuster snows may be tied to climate change.

Meteorologists have started to notice at least anecdotal evidence of more frequent large snow stops over the past decade, our colleagues Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow report.  While it may seem counterintuitive, some scientists are wondering if global warming may be behind bigger snow dumps, like the storm that hit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast last week.

Freedman and Samenow explain how this could work: “Studies have shown that precipitation is falling in heavier bursts as the climate warms, which is a result of the ability of milder air to hold more water vapor. Winter is warming faster than any other season. For each 1.8-degree increase in temperatures, the air can hold about 7 percent more moisture, which is known in physics as the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship. This means that as the atmosphere warms, there’s more water for storms to wring out in the form of rain and snow.”

Extra mileage

Two married TV meteorologists are reporting from home — for competing stations.

Every day, five days a week, viewers in Milwaukee can catch Justin Thompson-Gee and Stephanie Barichello reporting the weekly weather forecast from the same makeshift basement studio. Thompson-Gee reports for the local CBS affiliate from 4:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., while Barichello takes over the studio, using a slightly different camera angle, for a series of shows on the local Fox affiliate starting at 11 a.m, our colleague Matthew Cappucci reports.

The couple, who met on an expedition chasing tornadoes in the Great Plains, have a two-year-old daughter who has occasionally popped up in their broadcasts.

“She’s made a number of appearances,” said Thompson-Gee. “There was a moment over the summer when I was in the basement already; she was playing with that little toy corn popper machine. She’s running by while I’m on air. ... There’s been some comedic moments, but I think a lot of viewers really enjoy that. Viewers … see a glimpse of [our] lives.”

So far, working from home together has gone well, although the two are sometimes competitive about who got the closest forecast.