Democrats are angling to fully phase out oil, natural gas, and coal in the coming decades. And they’re not losing sleep over a potentially massive price tag.
Emboldened after taking the reins of the lower chamber, House Democrats are now pushing a slate of bills to make that energy overhaul a reality.
Those bills have virtually no chance of hitting President Trump’s desk in the 116th Congress. The Republican-controlled Senate is likely to show little appetite for dramatic action on climate change despite a spate of U.S. and United Nations reports in recent months that spell out dire consequences of inaction.
But the bills could gain the majority needed to pass the lower chamber with climate-minded Democrats now holding 235 seats. And the legislation will likely provide the framework for a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis mandate, which was formalized in the House rules package last week, to produce policy recommendations to House leadership by the end of this Congress.
Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Jimmy Gomez introduced legislation Wednesday to force a wholesale switch to renewable energy by 2035. That introduction comes just a day after House Democrats introduced bills to prohibit offshore drilling.
And Rep. Jared Huffman, a California progressive and former senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told National Journal that he plans to introduce an iteration of his Keep It in the Ground legislation by mid-January. The bill would bar new leases for fossil-fuel production in all parts of the outer Continental Shelf.
The bill has no payment mechanism to offset lost revenue from the oil, gas, and coal industries, which provide billions of dollars to federal, state, and local governments directly through royalties and leases and indirectly through employee and downstream business-tax contributions.
“The idea that somehow we’ve gotten hooked on royalties from an industry that’s killing the planet and therefore we can’t change anything—that’s really not the frame that I bring to this issue,” said Huffman.
“If you’re fixating on the royalty loss from not doing more fossil-fuel extraction, you should also put on that balance sheet the tremendous damage, as in, like, end-of-the-world damage, that we’re on a course to creating if we don’t change,” he added.
And even Senate Democrats, who remain in the minority, are laying the groundwork for more ambitious action. Staff for Sen. Jeff Merkley, who in the previous Congress sponsored the Keep It in the Ground Act and helped introduce the more expansive 100 by ’50 Act, which would compel a 100 percent switch to renewable energy by 2050, held a briefing with staff from other caucus members this week to publicize and brainstorm legislative plans.
A Democratic staffer familiar with the briefing said roughly 40 staffers turned out from “a couple dozen offices.” Last Congress, Merkley enticed seven cosponsors on his Keep It in the Ground bill and four on 100 by ’50.
That briefing signaled a likely more aggressive approach on Democratic legislative proposals despite the bleak outlook on passage this Congress.
“We’re going to no longer focus on the 2050 date. That’s a date that we thought at that time was one we could certainly defend from a feasibility standpoint,” the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because the legislation is still in development, told National Journal. “The point is, the science changes, so there’s some risk in setting hard-and-fast dates.”
A UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in October, concluded that the global community has only a dozen years to drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in order to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that point, drought, flooding, and extreme heat will pose drastic challenges, the report says.
A timeline to align with that report’s findings would track closer to the 2035 date in the Lieu legislation.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who cosponsored Merkley’s 100 by ’50 legislation, told National Journal that he sent staff to the briefing. “I think we have an international crisis, a global crisis,” he said. “What the scientists are telling us is that we need to move extremely boldly. And I intend to do everything I can to make that happen.”
Fossil-friendly advocates are now starting to dig in on a looming battle over the renewable transition legislation. But they’re not sounding the alarm bells just yet.
“It’s hard to really discern what’s a serious proposal at this point,” said Matt Letourneau, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “But clearly there’s movement among some progressives to try to even more aggressively phase out the use of traditional energy sources.”
Still, to add insult to potential injury, Democrats aren’t planning to let the fossil-fuel industry off the hook during the energy transition they envision. The 100 by ’50 legislation called for the elimination of fossil-fuel royalty relief and tax incentives, along with increases to production taxes.
“We can take a lot of the revenue from the oil industry that gets enormous breaks under the tax code,” Sen. Bob Menendez, a cosponsor of the Keep It in the Ground bill, told National Journal.
The transition could hit federal coffers hard, Letourneau said. And jobs in the coal, oil, and natural-gas sectors, which employed roughly 1.1 million people in 2017 according to an Energy Department report, would likely be eliminated, he noted.
The additional revenue created through eliminated subsidies "would be offset by the lack of investment from industry, because with the price of oil being what it is, it has to be economically viable for companies to make those investments and to actually try to harvest energy,” according to Letourneau.
“So, there would be significant reductions in employment. There would be less investment," he said.
Even though House Democrats are launching a major push, there are no guarantees that leadership will take sweeping climate legislation to the floor. Concerns over electability in 2020 could give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies pause.
“I don’t know if it’s going to happen. It’s going to face challenges,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, told National Journal. “[It’s not going to happen] if we get overprotective of our new members in swing districts.”