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Democrats weave climate messages into spending bills

Aggressive action on climate change and halting rollback of environmental regulations

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., shepherds action on the House’s environmental spending measure. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., shepherds action on the House’s environmental spending measure. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats are using the budget process to offer a clear contrast ahead of an election year between their embrace of aggressive action on climate change and the rollbacks of environmental regulation championed by Republicans when they controlled the chamber in the 115th Congress.

Many of the provisions they’ve included in the fiscal 2020 spending bills may not survive the GOP-led Senate, but Democrats are aware of national polls showing growing voter concern about the climate crisis.

“This bill recognizes the importance of science to understand the impacts of climate change and our natural cultural resources and our ecosystems and human health,” House Interior-Environment Appropriations Chairwoman Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said at the start of debate on the bill that funds the EPA and the Interior Department.

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The Interior-Environment bill is part of a $322 billion, five-bill package that the House is expected to vote on this week after working through amendments that started last week. The House on Wednesday passed another multi-bill package, which included climate measures that sparked debate with GOP critics.

The Democrats thwarted several attempts by Republicans to strip the measures of language requiring the Trump administration to enforce existing climate regulations, stay in the Paris Agreement and retreat from a plan to expand offshore drilling across nearly all U.S. waters.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave this planet better than we found it,” McCollum said during floor debate. “Limiting pollution from power plants is part of an overall strategy to protect us from the worst impacts of climate change. We owe it to the next generation.”

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Clean Power Plan

McCollum was addressing an amendment by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., that would have prohibited the EPA from enforcing the requirements of the 2015 Clean Power Plan.

That Obama administration climate rule aimed to significantly cut U.S. carbon emissions across the power sector but was never implemented because of court challenges fom the industry and Republican-controlled states. The EPA last week finalized a more lenient replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which sets no limits on power plant emissions and aims to prop up the struggling coal sector.

“It’s evident that the Clean Power Plan is nothing more than a feel-good environmental regulation promulgated by the radical left,” Duncan said. His amendment was rejected, 192-240.

In the Agriculture spending bill, lawmakers voted to adopt an amendment by Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., that would prevent the Agriculture Department from using appropriated funds to remove existing information about climate change from official publications.

“Make no mistake, due to drought, severe storms, and early spring and flooding, our farmers are on the front line when it comes to climate change,” Underwood said on Thursday.  

Deleting information and references to climate change, she said, hamstrings farmers’ ability to rely on accurate and precise information to make decisions and adapt to face future challenges.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., challenged the bill’s climate provisions.

“Instead of spending time on this type of messaging, let’s spend our time on actually helping our farmers and ranchers, and building a more secure and sustainable energy future that benefits all of America,” he said.

When they took over House leadership this year, Democrats stressed that climate change was an urgent crisis that would be top on their legislative agenda.

Climate agenda

Despite the bold promises to tackle climate change, they have only passed one major climate bill, which would force the U.S. to pursue the goals it agreed to in the 2015 Paris climate accords. The spending bills provide a vehicle by which they can call for incremental changes to climate policy and push back on what they describe as a “war on science” by the Trump administration and Republicans. 

Lawmakers last week voted to include in the Interior-Environment measure an amendment that would increase funding for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, a panel that the Trump administration has remade by replacing many former members with industry-friendly representatives.

That amendment, by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., also would increase funding for the board to review the administration’s proposed Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule, which public health advocates and many board members warn is meant to stifle the kind of science the EPA uses in its rulemaking.

If finalized, the rule would require the federal government to base its rulemaking on science that’s publicly available and can be replicated. Scientists say many public health studies can’t be replicated because it would require unethical actions such as intentionally exposing people to environmental hazards or would require recreating one-time events. They also resist the call for making all data public because they say it could violate privacy rights and intellectual property.

“The rule undermines scientific integrity  . . .  and endangers the EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission,” Bonamici said on the House floor Thursday.

The Democratic majority, joined by 21 Republicans, also shot down an attempt by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., to prevent the EPA from using the 2009 endangerment finding, which determined that six gases — including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

“Whether or not my colleague on the other side of the aisle will admit it, our climate’s changing,” McCollum said of Gosar’s amendment. “The endangerment finding does not regulate climate pollution, but it does say we need to take action to address it, and I agree.”

An amendment by Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., would have prohibited the government from basing its rules on the social cost of carbon, a metric designed by the Obama administration’s EPA to measure the cost in dollars of the long-term damage associated with carbon dioxide emissions.  It formed the basis for many Obama-era environmental regulations, while angering conservative states and GOP lawmakers.

In some cases, a few Republicans joined Democrats to help adopt some environment-related amendments, including banding together to send a strong message to President Donald Trump: they don’t want oil and gas drilling off their coasts.

The House adopted bipartisan amendments on offshore drilling, including by several Florida lawmakers led by Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as well as separate proposals by Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., that would stop the administration’s plan to allow oil and gas exploration offshore, including by issuing permits for seismic testing off the coasts of the Atlantic and parts of the Pacific.

A similar provision by Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., was adopted in in the Commerce-Justice-Science portion of the second spending package that is to be voted on this week.

Duncan said such provisions were driven by people who “really just don’t want fossil fuels.”

“These fear tactics of oil spills are just shortsighted on meeting our energy needs,” Duncan said.

The House voted down a Duncan amendment that would have removed language in the bill that would make it harder for the government to sell oil and gas leases for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Lawmakers also rejected an amendment by Gosar that would have struck out language in the State-Foreign Operations spending measure to prevent the U.S. from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

“We cannot afford to stand idly by while others address climate change, nor will we simply avoid its impact,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said of the GOP amendments that would prevent U.S. involvement in international climate treaties and research. “We already feel its effects.”

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