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In a purple district, Rep. Mike Levin stays focused on green energy

Democrat talks California gas prices, climate goals and his push to change permitting

Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., is seen in his office on Capitol Hill on Dec. 7.
Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., is seen in his office on Capitol Hill on Dec. 7. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Just as sure as the sun rises in the east, and just as sure as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano every spring, it used to be that as America’s economy grew, so too did its greenhouse gas emissions. 

That has started to change, driven partly by a shift to renewable energy. It happened again last year, when emissions fell an estimated 1.9 percent even as GDP boomed, according to a new analysis from the Rhodium Group. 

It may still come as cold comfort to environmentalists like Rep. Mike Levin: 2023 was also the hottest year on record, and a year that saw U.S. fossil fuel production hit record highs. “I don’t think we’re going to hit our climate goals, nor are we going to have a positive economic outcome over the long term, if we just double down on fossil fuels,” the California Democrat said. 

Speaking to Roll Call in December, Levin talked up Democrats’ recent legislative accomplishments boosting wind and solar power while calling for permitting changes to smooth the way for more power lines to “fully unlock the potential of all the new renewable electricity we’re going to generate.” 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’ve been here since 2019. What’s one thing you’ve learned about Congress? 

A: I think people would be surprised by the time every member puts in. And by and large, every member cares very deeply about their constituents. 

It’s forced me to be less judgmental. As a colleague to 434 other members, I think most of them are in this for the right reason. 

Q: You once worked as an environmental lawyer. Now that you’re in Congress, you want to speed up energy permitting for renewable projects. What concessions would you be willing to make to get more colleagues on board?

A: The key is, how do we fully unlock the potential of all the new renewable electricity we’re going to generate, the solar and wind? 

The challenge we have today is that it’s easier to build a multistate pipeline than it is to build a multistate transmission line. So how can we build the transmission lines and corresponding distribution infrastructure we’re going to need?

I have a bill with Sean Casten [we rolled out in December] that has a lot of support, and I hope will be a consensus bill, at least for House Democrats, of what we need to do. 

Sometimes when I hear the term “permitting reform,” people mistake that for providing a free pass for more and more and more fossil fuels. But I don’t think we’re going to hit our climate goals, nor are we going to have a positive economic outcome over the long term, if we just double down on fossil fuels.

Q: Speaking of fossil fuels, gas prices are high in California, even though they’re lower elsewhere. And U.S. oil production hit record levels.

A: California is a unique situation for a number of reasons. Number one is we have a special blend of gasoline that can only be refined in certain refineries. Second, we do have a cap-and-trade program that impacts the price, though not as much as some might want you to believe. 

California created a new Division of Petroleum Market Oversight at the state level, and what we’ve seen is some pretty troubling transactions on the spot market. Trying to figure out what’s behind unusual market activity needs to be a federal concern as well as a state concern, so I called on the FTC to investigate

Independent of how much we drill in the United States, we are at the will of OPEC. We are at the will of the Saudis, and geopolitically, it’s a mess. And so decoupling our transportation and our domestic energy from global geopolitics — and particularly from countries that don’t want us to succeed — is a good idea. 

Q: So do you think it’s good that we’re drilling a record amount right now?

A: I agree with my friends on the other side of the aisle who talk about energy independence, but I want clean energy independence. I’m troubled when they think more drilling is the answer to everything.

In 20, 30, 40 years, we’re all going to be using a whole host of new technologies to move goods around, move people around, build buildings, grow food, generate electricity. It’s all going to change, and the question is: Are we going to rely on other countries, including some countries that don’t particularly like us, for these technologies? Or are we going to manufacture and invent these technologies here? 

How do we get from where we are today to a cleaner, more cost-effective energy future? I strongly support the provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act related to clean energy tax policy, and I think we need a lot more. 

I was very proud to be on the select committee for climate in 2020. It was in the middle of a pandemic, so it didn’t necessarily make the news that it could have. But we put out this incredible 500-page report with all the things we need to do to hit our goals. 

We implemented some of that, but there’s still so much to do. And as I look at this permitting reform bill, that’s a key piece of it. That will help unlock the potential of this 10-year window of tax policies that we have. 

Q: How realistic do you think that is?

A: I started getting into sustainability and clean tech back around 2007-2008, and that’s when I knew I wanted it to be a career. You should focus on the things you’re passionate about — that’s what I always try to tell my kids. 

Whether it’s California policymakers or federal policymakers, they’ve set bold goals, and then they’re told those goals are unrealistic. But we just have to keep at it. Because when I started out, I remember hearing that a 33 percent renewable electricity goal was unrealistic, and then California hit it. And I heard a 50 percent goal was unrealistic, and then 100 percent.

It’s the same with electric cars. My friends across the aisle seem not to be too fond of electric cars these days, but I remember doing my senior research as an undergrad on something called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, where the Clinton administration tasked the Big Three to come up with an 80 mpg hybrid. This is way back in the late ’90s, and at the time, people thought that’s crazy. You can’t do that. You can’t design cars that can get 80 miles per gallon and are still cars that people want to buy. But here we are. And I think we’re just getting started. 

Q: Let’s shift to politics. You’re on the NRCC target list. Does your party need to change its strategy? You’ve been pushing the message that Democrats can accomplish things the majority of Americans support. But so far, it doesn’t seem to be catching on. 

A: When you talk about $35 insulin, or prescription drugs now being negotiated by Medicare, or the bipartisan infrastructure law, or the CHIPS and Science Act, or the bipartisan Safer Communities Act — it doesn’t seem like there are very many reporters who find that very attractive to cover. 

That’s why I try to go out and do it myself. I’m just trying to educate people as best as I can on what we did as House Democrats when we had a very narrow majority, and what House Republicans would do, if empowered to do it.

There’s an incongruence between this House Republican leadership and the vast majority of middle-of-the-road people I speak with. I don’t expect anybody to agree with me on every issue, but I do hope they’ll understand what I’m trying to do. It’s about more than just seeing myself on cable news or how many retweets or reposts I can get. 

Quick hits

Last book you read? McKay Coppins’ book on Mitt Romney, which I thought was really interesting. And I just read a book about Jerry Brown, one of the most fascinating people in California. I love political biography.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? You have to make decisions on the basis of your values. When I was in college, I had a political science professor who thought the only thing members of Congress cared about was getting elected and reelected. And I don’t think that’s true.

Your least popular opinion? In this institution, not taking corporate PAC money is not always very popular with my colleagues.

Something your friends know about you that your constituents don’t? I am a morning person. That’s my happiest time, and in the range of 5 to 6 a.m. is when I get a ton of work done. My team knows it, because they get emailed at that hour. But it’s helped me in this job, trying not to get jetlag all the time.

You live in San Juan Capistrano, which is home to the famed swallow. Can you tell a cliff swallow from, say, a common tern or wren? Probably not, and the bigger challenge is that because of development over the years, now they have to work very hard to get the swallows to come back at all. So it’s not the same as it used to be, and it’s an important thing for the cultural legacy of our town.

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