CLIMATE ROUNDUP: A busy week in Washington, broken down

Colin Sullivan

Aug. 5, 2021

There’s a lot going on in Washington right now, as Congress eyes several weeks out of town for the annual August recess. Here’s a roundup to help navigate the ins and outs.

Polluter Pays

A group of liberal Democrats have floated legislation in Congress that would make large carbon emitters foot the bill for events linked to climate change and fossil fuel combustion. They hope to attach the “polluter pays” bill, from Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen and others, to a forthcoming budget reconciliation measure this fall.

The revenue-raiser would create a carbon fee directed at the companies deemed most responsible for releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over a 20-year period, from 2000 to 2019. Here’s the breaking story from the New York Times.

Van Hollen’s office says the concept could generate as much as $500 billion over the next decade to help pay for the kinds of climate adaptation and technology solutions Democrats intend to place in the budget bill.

Importantly: The idea was not included in the $1 trillion infrastructure package. It will have to survive into the budget bill if it’s to move this year. Budget reconciliation is set to include the top climate priorities for environmental groups, headlined by a Clean Electricity Standard, a civilian climate corps, environmental justice measures and incentives for electric cars.

Just as importantly: Energy lobbyists have shrugged off the idea, saying the Van Hollen bill would never survive legal scrutiny because it creates a tax on specific companies. The NYTimes quotes a lead energy industry official as calling the concept “laughable”. It would likely have to win the support of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to go anywhere in the tightly divided Senate.

This Twitter account was launched to help promote the polluter pays approach. New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman is the lead figure pushing the legislation in the House.

Biden flexing his car muscles

Just to the northwest of Congress, a few blocks up Pennsylvania Ave. at the White House, President Biden is showing signs of getting more aggressive on electric cars.

Biden is moving on two fronts. First, he’s going to restore the corporate average fuel economy standards imposed by President Obama but rolled back by President Trump. Second, Biden is reportedly going to sign an executive order today that directs automakers to convert half their fleets to electric models within a decade.

The order will also direct federal agencies to begin drafting fuel efficiency standards for cars made after 2026, according to Climatewire. Eligible vehicles include electric, plug-in hybrid, and battery and fuel cell EVs.

U.S. auto manufacturers are expected to back the spirit of the executive order without firmly agreeing to mandates. General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. issued a statement saying they bring “shared aspiration to achieve sales of 40-50 percent of annual U.S. volumes of electric vehicles.”

Environmentalists aren’t impressed and want the president to go further, to mimic the more aggressive fuel-economy rules in play in Europe. Stay tuned.

Whatcom County leading the way

What’s a “Whatcom County,” you ask? You came to the right place.

This week the jurisdiction became the first U.S. county to ban construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure — meaning any of it and all of it.

Whatcom County, which hugs the Canadian border in the northwest corner of the continental United States, unanimously passed a measure that prohibits new refineries, coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuel-related infrastructure.

According to the Guardian, the ban brings to a close years of wrestling over a huge coal export facility proposed for the county. That facility was blocked after the local Lummi Nation said it would have destroyed fisheries.

Reporting on women and climate

Ever heard of the Fuller Project? We think you should know about it.

The group, which is funded in part by Preston-Werner Ventures, was started to address under-representation of women in the news. The organization is a real newsroom, run by news professionals, that seeks to improve reporting about women and by women.

The non-profit also has a truly stellar promotional video. It’s worth a watch.

PWV believes in the initiative because of its ties to climate justice and marginalized voices. A recent story, for example, which was completed in partnership with Vice, details how natural gas companies operating in Nigeria use gas flaring despite the effects on women in the Niger Delta region. The reporter behind the story, Shola Lawal, notes that women in the region are often the breadwinners in their families, but their livelihoods and lands have been destroyed by gas operations in the country.

For much more on the Fuller Project, check out the organization’s website here.

Newsom in trouble?

Another item on PWV’s radar is the proposed recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. A surprise poll from Survey USA and the San Diego Union Tribune this week found that the San Francisco Democrat might be in trouble when the recall election takes place Sept. 14.

According to a survey from 1,100 state residents, conducted from Aug. 2 to Aug. 4, just over half of respondents said they favor recalling Newsom, while 40 percent said they would vote to keep him in power.

A previous poll by the same outfits in May found 36 percent were in favor of ending Newsom’s reign, with 47 percent opposed.

The poll did not account for whether those surveyed are likely to vote Sept. 14. Another survey, by University of California, Berkeley, and the Los Angeles Times, found a dead heat in evidence when those polled were weighted by likelihood to vote.

The gist of both polls is Republicans are much more enthusiastic about the recall and more likely to show up. If they do vote, respondents to Survey USA and the San Diego Union Tribune said they would support (in this order): YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, a Democrat, who received 27 percent of the support; conservative radio host Larry Elder, with 23 percent; and businessman John Cox, who scored 10 percent in the survey.

Controlling the Mississippi

And finally, an opportunity for this reporter to shamelessly plug two of his favorite books: “The Control of Nature” and “Coming into the Country,” both by John McPhee.

If you’ve never read McPhee, check him out. He’s a giant in nonfiction and won a Pulitzer Prize for a very long book (“Annals of the Former World”) that explores the geological history of North America.

McPhee has written about anything and everything over a career spanning decades, but he has frequently dabbled in stories about how humankind wrestles with nature and the colorful figures behind those efforts. His reporting was among the first to encounter climate change and confront humanity’s culpability for its acceleration.

The best section of “The Control of Nature,” in my view, looks at how engineers reroute, manage and generally wage war on the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, all in the name of commerce. Much more about the book available here.

Thanks for reading.

    • Colin Sullivan

Sullivan is the former West Coast bureau chief and congressional editor for E&ENews. He’s based in D.C.