Photo Credit: House Energy & Commerce Committee

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee recently published a 15-page summary of the CLEAN Future Act, the culmination of a year of public hearings, with a goal of “net zero” carbon emissions and a carbon-free power sector by the year 2050. 

Democrats have called it a likely preview of what they would push for if they win the Senate and  White House in the 2020 election. Climate justice groups have slammed the CLEAN Future Act, calling it “shameful” and saying it “could wind up greenwashing” dirty energy sources.

Critics of the CLEAN Future Act cite both its 100% renewable energy by 2050 timeline for taking action and its lack of an explicit phaseout of fossil fuel production in the United States. An often-cited 2018 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stipulates that, by 2030, the world must see a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid locking in some of the worst impacts of climate change. Another critique says the  legislation allows for a “technology-neutral” approach to electricity supply, depending on market mechanisms to offset emissions from carbon-intensive fuel sources, an approach long critiqued by climate justice advocates and even recently the United Nations.

Brett Hartl, Government Affairs Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says that Democrats on the committee have worked under a wrong-headed timeline from the start. 

“I think it’s really disingenuous that the House Dems are saying ‘100% renewable by 2050 aligns with what the UN IPCC says,’” he said. “It’s like, well yes, but they also said more recently and more direly that we have 10 years to get on the right path. That was the whole thing about the special report…urgent action is needed by 2030 because if you don’t make the cuts now, the carbon budget is blown and odds of hitting net zero by 2050 are almost nothing.”

Food & Water Watch, too, slammed the committee’s 100% by 2050 plan. 

“There is absolutely no doubt that the world desperately needs bold policies to address the climate crisis,” Mitch Jones, climate and energy program director for the group Food & Water Watch, said in a press release. “This proposal falls well short of this need. The proposed clean electricity goal represents an insufficient timeline, and could wind up greenwashing an array of dirty energy sources—everything from nuclear power to fracked gas with so-called ‘carbon capture.’”

However, others in the environmental movement lauded the bill, including the groups Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, who have been criticized as being part of the ‘Big Green’ network of political establishment-oriented climate groups.

“This far-sighted plan can launch the power, resources and determination of our nation to meet, and overcome, the rising dangers from climate change,” John Bowman, managing director of Government Affairs for NRDC, said in a press release. “It sends a message that we need to move, and rapidly, to a future powered by clean energy and transportation sources. And it puts into action ready-to-go solutions, so our children don’t inherit a world of rising seas, punishing drought, deadly wildfires and raging storms.”

These same groups have also championed the work of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which has faced criticism from climate justice groups. House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) helped craft the Select Committee as a corporate-friendly response to climate justice groups’ push for a Select Committee on Green New Deal. 

Bill Details

Even the 100% by 2050 goal included in the bill has a caveat, creating a market-based credit auctions system without clarifying if it will be cap-and-trade, or something else. Climate justice groups have for decades called cap-and-trade a “pay to pollute” oriented system.

“The draft legislation stipulates that [energy] suppliers must possess a sufficient quantity of ‘clean energy credits’ at the end of each year, or may otherwise make an ‘alternative compliance payment,’” the press release for the bill explains. “Suppliers may buy and trade clean energy credits from one another or purchase them via auction. The mandate is technology-neutral, allowing electricity suppliers ample flexibility and freedom of choice.”

Jones worries that a market-oriented scheme of this sort could mean increased fossil fuel energy production in the years ahead: “A ‘technology-neutral’ approach leaves us primed for decades more greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in the press release. “A bold climate plan must call for a ban on fracking and all new fossil fuel infrastructure, and a swift and just transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy across all sectors of the economy. We have no time to rely on market-based schemes, dubious offset programs or unproven carbon capture technologies designed to prolong the life of the fossil fuel industry.”

Hartl worries that the 100% by 2050 goal does not touch production of fossil fuels or consumption of them in ways other than on the electricity grid: “Even if we decarbonize, but we continue sucking fossil fuels out of the ground, they go places and they get exported,” he said. “We’ve already become a net exporter of fossil fuels.”

Beyond the 100% carbon-free power supply goal, the legislation also calls for mandated energy efficiency for the building sector and “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It also includes environmental justice language, calling for frontline impacted communities to have a voice in “permitting and regulation of petrochemical facilities in their neighborhoods,” as well as calling for more stringent coal ash disposal requirements. Further, it calls for a “codification” of the environmental justice principles for minority and low-income populations currently found in a 1994 executive order signed by President Bill Clinton.

“That order established an interagency working group on environmental justice and required federal agencies to integrate environmental justice into their missions and develop comprehensive, agency-wide environmental justice strategies,” the committee states in the legislative outline. “The bill codifies those requirements in response to recommendations provided by the Government Accountability Office that codification could improve compliance and effectiveness.”

For methane emissions from oil and gas production, the bill would mandate a phaseout of the practice of flaring of natural gas as an emitted non-profitable waste byproduct of drilling by 2028. It also calls for an 80 percent reduction of 2017 levels for flaring by 2025.

The bill also calls for the creation of a “national climate bank,” modeled after state- and local-level green banks. The idea was inspired by a bill recently introduced by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), which calls for creation of a $35 billion climate bank that some say could balloon to a value of $1 trillion. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has also championed such a fund as part of her climate platform.

Its goal: provide funding for “low- and zero-emissions energy technologies; climate resiliency; building efficiency and electrification; industrial decarbonization; grid modernization; agriculture projects; and clean transportation,” the outline for the legislation explains.

“The provision requires the Bank to prioritize investments in communities that are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, including frontline, rural, low-income, and environmental justice communities,” the outline further details. “In addition, the Bank must ensure that all investments are accompanied by strong labor protections.”

“Procrastinating on Your Homework”

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee that’s proposing the bill, said he sees it as an ambitious plan to tackle the climate crisis.

“Today we are providing the kind of serious federal leadership this moment requires,” said Pallone Jr. “This plan represents our commitment to achieving net zero greenhouse gas pollution. For the sake of the American people, the long-term sustainability of our economy, and public health, we must act boldly, and that is exactly what we intend to do.”

While Hartl acknowledges that he thinks all of the things found in the bill’s outline are “not terrible,” he disagrees that it counts as bold action, saying that he believes it’s “so timid” and that “we could be there much, much faster.”

“I think the reality is that these bills have so little substance and requirements that it could be business as usual for 2049,” said Hartl. “And then we wave a magic wand. And then the last year we do all the hard work. So it’s like procrastinating on your homework. And that’s the approach to this bill is taking.”

The U.S. House Committee on the Climate Crisis will also release its policy framework and recommendations by its legally mandated deadline at the end of March. Climate justice groups already fear the policies recommended will again fall short, pointing to shortcomings in the framing of its request for information from stakeholder groups, which will serve as fodder for the final report.

“Unfortunately the Select Committee’s Request for Information fails to solicit information on two of the most critical components of the climate fight: (1) addressing structural inequities that perpetuate injustice and the disproportionate impacts to frontline communities, and (2) ending fossil fuel production – the major driver of climate change,” 250 climate justice groups wrote in a Nov. 22 letter to the Select Committee which called for, instead, Green New Deal legislation. “After decades of inaction and defeatist rhetoric about what is possible, our planet can no longer afford incremental or isolated policy tweaks that appear safe to Members of Congress, most of whom will not live to see the consequences of the disastrous choices that they have made.”

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.