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Green supporters see holes in Democrats’ recovery bill

Party allies want a greener economy and direct help for workers and families

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in the Mojave Desert in California.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in the Mojave Desert in California. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats’ latest coronavirus relief package has some of the party’s allies frustrated with its exclusion of aid for clean energy and for sidelining legislation to prevent fossil fuel companies from taking the taxpayer support.

Before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released the $3 trillion bill on Tuesday, many traditional Democratic allies were pushing for lawmakers to include provisions for building a greener economy with clean air and sustainable energy, along with direct help for workers and families.

“Congressional investments into programs that reduce pollution, build clean water infrastructure, grow clean energy, reduce energy waste, promote clean transportation, restore our lands and waters, and build more resilient communities are essential ways to put people back to work, protect public health, and strengthen our economy,” Gene Karpinksi, president of the League of Conservation Voters, wrote to lawmakers last week.

The bill includes some of the provisions sought by environmentalists, including help for front-line workers, environmental justice grants and moratoriums on utility disconnections. But the only direct support for renewable energy in the bill is a proposal to pay biofuel producers 45 cents a gallon for fuel produced between Jan. 1 and May 1.

Tax credits for wind and solar that the industry has sought weren’t included in the bill. Those are issues that Democrats have typically supported.

Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said the clean energy industry is suffering “unprecedented job losses” due to the coronavirus pandemic and the House’s recovery bill should be an opportunity to help.

Nearly 600,000 clean energy jobs have been lost since the coronavirus pandemic started and that number could reach 850,000 by the end of June if Congress doesn’t help, according to joint analysis released on Wednesday by Wetstone’s group, ACORE, and E2 or Environmental Entrepreneurs, E4TheFuture and BW Research Partnership.

“With the HEROES Act unveiled in the House of Representatives yesterday, Congress has an opportunity to help renewable sector workers through commonsense changes to renewable energy tax credits, including flexibility in the time-sensitive deadlines on which renewable energy projects depend and refundability to make credits easier to use,” Wetstone said.

Heather Reams, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a right-leaning clean energy group, said she was surprised that the Democrats would propose such massive spending without any attention to clean energy.

“This is a sector that’s hurting — that needs some kind of relief — and we’ve seen nothing for clean energy,” Reams told CQ Roll Call. “As a clean energy Republican, I talk with Republicans … but I also assume we’ve got allies on the left.”

GOP to step in?

Reams, who has been in recent months pushing Republicans to act on clean energy and climate change, said the GOP should pick up the mantle if Democrats won’t.

“I’d like to think that the Senate is going to put forward something positive for clean energy,” she said.

The House is expected to vote on the bill Friday before sending it to the Senate, where many of its provisions face a difficult path in the Republican-led chamber.

Green provisions such as tax credits for wind and energy producers have proven contentious and were stripped out of prior legislation after GOP lawmakers objected.

“We will continue working with Congress and other renewable energy leaders to find solutions to the specific challenges COVID-19 is causing our members,” Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said. “Relief provisions ensuring renewable projects can secure financing and meet safe harbor continuity schedules are critical to preserving a strong domestic clean energy sector.”

Hoyer and SPR

The bill also came as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said he supported the idea of buying oil to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, echoing the position of GOP oil-state lawmakers and angering some green groups.

Oil-state lawmakers have been pushing for Congress to approve $3 billion for the Energy Department to buy oil at currently low prices to fill up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, helping soak up excess oil that has pushed prices to some of the lowest levels in history.

Hoyer’s statements irked some environmental groups critical of fossil fuel industries for their contribution to climate change.

Lukas Ross, senior policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, demanded that Hoyer apologize for his “inane and insensitive” remarks.

“Protecting medical professionals and sick Americans is not the same as protecting fossil fuels, full stop,” Ross said. “How can we expect Democrats to fight against a Big Oil bailout when the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House is ready to roll over for the industry?”

While the House bill does not include the provision to buy oil for the SPR, it also also left out legislation introduced by some Democrats to prevent fossil fuel companies from using coronavirus relief funds because their troubles predate the pandemic-driven economic slowdown.

Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., who introduced the bill to keep the relief money from fossil fuel producers, plans to testify before the House Rules Committee on Thursday and argue for the inclusion of her legislation in the relief package.

She said the relief bills are intended to help Americans struggling to make it through the pandemic, but that the Trump administration has been “working closely” with the oil and gas industry to undermine their intent.

“Passing the ReWIND Act is critical so giant oil and gas corporations cannot take advantage of relief money that was not intended for them,” Barragán told CQ Roll Call in an email. “I’ll continue to fight for its inclusion in this and future relief packages.”

The Sierra Club, which applauded several provisions in Pelosi’s bill, including help for marginalized communities, criticized the exclusion of the “critical guardrails” in Barragán’s bill to “ensure the Trump administration cannot divert relief funding to bail out corporate polluters, or much-needed support for the clean energy industry.”

The exclusion of clean energy provisions earned House Democrats a rare nod from the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The good news in House Democrats’ latest spending package is that it contains no green energy boondoggles,” CEI’s Center for Energy and Environment Myron Ebell, who once was an advisor to the Trump administration, said, although he remained critical of provisions that he argued cater to special interests.

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