House Climate Caucus Hits the Skids

Key lawmakers aren’t speaking out against Trump’s efforts to rollback fuel-economy standards, calling the group’s future into question.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, accompanied by Rep. Jeff Denham, at a news conference June 27 after the Republican-led House rejected a far-ranging immigration bill despite its eleventh-hour endorsement by President Trump.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Oct. 28, 2018, 8 p.m.

A Trump administration move to roll back fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles is throwing an already-embattled House Climate Solutions Caucus into further—and potentially existential—turmoil.

The proposal to unwind Obama-era Corporate Fuel Economy Standards, arguably the most significant climate regulation on the federal books, hit a comment deadline Friday, and lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have so far failed to marshal any formidable opposition.

Now, environmental groups are increasingly chiding the caucus for inaction, while conservative, fossil-fuel advocates appear undaunted by its presence. Even Democratic lawmakers are casting the caucus as a facade that provides political cover for Republicans who represent moderate districts.

“I know many colleagues joined this with the best of intentions only to conclude that it’s a complete waste of time,” Rep. Jared Huffman, a progressive who represents a heavily Democratic district in coastal northern California and who isn't a caucus member, told National Journal in an interview. “I have come to conclude that if I associate myself with them I’m only aiding and abetting a political fraud.”

The CAFE standards are a prime battleground in the legislative and legal fight against climate change. American vehicles last year surpassed the power sector as the biggest emitter of manmade greenhouse gases—the pollutants, led by carbon dioxide, that scientists say are the primary contribution to climate change.

And the stakes are growing. This month, a United Nations panel sounded the alarm on climate change, arguing that “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes” are needed to ensure a “more sustainable and equitable society.” The report called for action to limit global-temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the coming decades.

But despite forecasts for severe climate change, the climate caucus largely isn’t pushing ahead on expansive policy. Proponents tout a bipartisan vote in 2017 knocking down an amendment that would have cut funding for a Defense Department climate-change study as the group's highest-profile achievement.

Huffman, meanwhile, is operating outside the bounds of the caucus. The former lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group likely to litigate the CAFE proposal if finalized, led a letter last week to urge the Environmental Protection Agency to pump the brakes on the CAFE rollback.

“We are disappointed that the administration has chosen to replace strong federal standards based on sound science,” the letter, which has 68 signatories, said. “You must uphold the Clean Air Act’s model of federal and state cooperation that has allowed states to adopt strong air pollution standards to protect air quality, improve public health and reduce carbon pollution.”

The EPA proposal would ax California’s ability to set its own, more-aggressive standards, which a dozen other states have vowed to follow. The Obama-era standard, which remains in place, gradually increases fuel-economy requirements for new cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025, following years of tough negotiations with California and industry. The Trump rollback, meanwhile, is proposing to freeze the annual increase at model year 2020.

Congress initially passed fuel-economy standards in 1975, largely in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo. The U.S. now produces oil at record thresholds, and the CAFE standards are prioritized as both a climate-change initiative and driver of innovation.

And so, amid the rollback rulemaking process, environmental groups are ramping up criticism of the climate caucus.

“We want to see opposition to things that move the carbon needle up,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director at the Sierra Club. “The Climate Solutions Caucus is not living up to its stated goals and it amounts to greenwashing for many of these, certainly Republican, members.”

The bipartisan caucus, founded in early 2016 by Democrat Ted Deutch and Republican Carlos Curbelo, now boasts 90 members. The caucus operates on a Noah’s Ark system of membership additions. A Democrat can only join with a Republican colleague, and vice versa.

Huffman teamed up with Curbelo, whose Miami-area and Florida Keys district is on the frontlines of sea-level rise, to spearhead the recent letter. But Curbelo only managed to bring four Republican climate-caucus colleagues on board, the latest example of the Florida Republican’s inability to muster support for his climate initiatives.

Curbelo, who did not respond to a request for comment, also unveiled a carbon-tax bill in July, and only two colleagues have signed on.

Eleven climate-caucus Republicans who represent states that would likely join California in litigation against the rollback stayed off the letter. National Journal reached out to their offices, and only one responded. A spokesperson for Rep. Frank LoBiondo said the retiring New Jersey Republican supports efforts to raise fuel efficiency.

Glaringly, Deutch has even stood on the sidelines of the CAFE debate.

He didn’t sign the Huffman-Curbelo letter this month, nor did he sign a similar letter last year. His name is also not included among the 63 Democratic sponsors of legislation that would force the EPA to maintain the CAFE standards. A spokesperson for Deutch didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Environmental groups also emphasize that some Republicans in the caucus have staked out positions that appear to be at clear odds with the stated mission to “reduce climate risk.” Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the 45 Republicans in the caucus, introduced legislation to terminate the EPA. Forty members of the caucus voted to condemn a carbon tax this year.

Meanwhile, conservative groups are largely backing the Trump administration’s CAFE rollback. And some big names in industry and energy policy are praising Republicans, including the climate-caucus members, for rejecting initiatives to crack down on emissions.

“I’m pleased that the Republicans are obviously united on the issue of energy and environmental policy—absolutely,” said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance and an advisor on the Trump administration transition team.

Asked about his views on the Climate Solutions Caucus, Pyle responded: “I’m not losing a lot of sleep at night about it, that’s for sure. … Fortunately, at the moment it’s an unproductive caucus.”

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