Can House Special Committees Fight the Climate Crisis?
Jessy Tolkan was 27 years old when she testified before the U.S. House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
“The urgency and magnitude of the topics we come to discuss today could not be more pressing or more timely,” she said at the hearing, representing the youth-led climate activist group Energy Action Coalition.
That was in 2009. A decade later, the climate crisis is even worse.
“We were asking for 80% reductions in carbon by 2050. We now know that’s not nearly enough,” Tolkan told The Real News.
Yet today’s Democratic House leadership is sticking to its strategy for tackling the climate crisis, instituting a new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to advise representatives on climate policy. Created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it bears strong resemblance to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming she instated over a decade ago.
Like its predecessor, the new committee is meant to advise the House on climate policy, but has no power to draft bills—though it can be used as a platform to discuss and promote legislation. This month, it issued a press release to promote a bill that Committee Chair Kathy Castor introduced in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
The new committee even shares staff with its predecessor. Castor’s picks for staff director, Ana Unruh Cohen, and deputy staff director, Alison Cassady, worked as senior staffers under U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and U.S. Sen. Henry Waxman (CA), respectively. Both helped to craft the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the cap-and-trade proposal promoted by the original Select Committee.
On April 4, the new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held its first hearing. Its second is slated for April 30. The hearings are meant to inform a report on climate policy proposals that the committee must publish and submit to the House by March 31, 2020.
The first hearing focused on youth-led climate movements, but the Sunrise Movement—the youth climate advocacy group spearheading the push for a Green New Deal—did not receive an invitation. They were not invited to the second hearing, which will focus on solutions to the climate crisis, either.
Though Pelosi has said the new Select Committee will exist “in the spirit of the Green New Deal,” its members have not officially said they will consider any Green New Deal proposals, such as phasing out fossil fuels within a decade or creating millions of green jobs. She established this committee in December 2019 despite competing calls for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, as proposed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (known to many as AOC) and the Sunrise Movement.
Republicans disbanded the first Select Committee when they reclaimed the House in 2010. In interviews with The Real News, several former committee staffers said its impact on climate policy can still be seen today. But critics say its legacy is detrimental—and fear that the new Select Committee won’t be an improvement.
Select Committee 1.0
When Pelosi created the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming 13 years ago, the balance of power in Washington looked like it does today: Republicans ran the executive branch and Democrats had recently taken control of the House (though in 2007, Democrats also controlled the Senate).
Some representatives criticized Pelosi’s move to create the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, particularly the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI). Dingell chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over environmental issues. He and Pelosi struck a deal: He would not object to the committee’s creation as long as it didn’t have legislative authority.
Though it could not formally draft legislation, Gerard Waldron, who served as the previous committee staff director and chief counsel from 2008-2010, and is now a corporate lobbyist, said the committee helped make climate change a priority for representatives. He said it proved instrumental in developing three main policy proposals and giving them momentum.
“One was the passage of the law that increased the fuel economy standards, which actually happened in 2007,” he said, referring to the Energy Independence and Security Act. “That was a tremendous step forward in terms of fuel economy standards, which obviously are a major contributor to greenhouse gases.”
Another was the 2009 stimulus act, which included $90 billion for sustainable energy.
“You could actually get the benefit of the jobs, the benefit of the stimulus, and the benefit to the environment,” Waldron explained.
Perhaps best known was the Select Committee’s role in crafting the aforementioned cap-and-trade bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act. “That was key,” said Waldron.
But largely forgotten is the role the committee—and Markey—played in promoting fracking.
In a major congressional hearing in July 2008, the Select Committee touted hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as a clean source of energy. By then, impacted communities were raising awareness about the drilling method’s negative impacts on public health and the environment, but the committee only invited industry representatives: Chesapeake Energy, Suez LNG and Dow Chemical all testified.
In his opening remarks, then-U.S. Rep. Ed Markey—flanked by Unruh-Cohen—referred to natural gas as the “prince” of fossil fuels because it is “cleaner burning and emits half the carbon dioxide of coal and one-third of oil.”
“As Congress considers energy policies that will increase our energy independence and help solve global warming, understanding the role of natural gas is critical,” said Markey. “The testimony of our witnesses today should help us understand what policies are necessary to best deploy this precious natural resource.”
Industry representatives employed a similar tone.
“If there is one message I would like to effectively communicate today it is that America is at the beginning of a great natural gas boom,” said the late Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy and founder of the influential pro-fracking advocacy group the American Clean Skies Foundation. “This boom can largely solve our present energy crisis.”
Chesapeake Energy would soon become the top producer of natural gas in the country, behind only ExxonMobil. Under McClendon, it also donated millions of dollars to the Sierra Club to promote natural gas as a “bridge fuel.”
Environmentalists had been warning of the environmental and public health impacts of fracking for years. And in 2010 the Academy Award-nominated documentary film “Gasland” would document the ecological dangers of the horizontal drilling process. It showed how a policy exemption known as the ‘Halliburton loophole’ allowed the fracking industry to contaminate rural communities’ drinking water with flammable chemicals
Despite the outcry, the Select Committee’s final report called natural gas “an important bridge fuel in the U.S. energy system” because “it emits roughly half the carbon as coal in producing the same amount of energy.”
Just a few months later, however, a landmark study by Cornell University researchers documented that fracking emits 20 percent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than coal.
“I do find it surprising that the nation would rush ahead on developing this a transitional fuel without doing a better job of looking at its greenhouse gas emissions,” study co-author Robert Howarth said to the publication Mother Jones at the time.
Even after Cornell published their study, Markey wrote in a January 2012 letter that natural gas can act as a “bridge fuel” to “clean, sustainable sources of energy” because “it emits less carbon dioxide and other pollutants than coal and oil.”
Today, the U.S. is a globally leading producer of natural gas and has become a net exporter. Eben Burnham-Snyder, who served as Communications Director for the Select Committee under Markey, now heads up communications efforts at the gas exporting company Cheniere, which landed the first ever fracking-era exports permit under President Barack Obama in 2012.
On his LinkedIn page, Burnham-Snyder writes that, among his accomplishments while working on Capitol Hill, he “positioned then-Rep. Markey as major voice on natural gas issues.”
None of the 2007-2010 Select Committee staffers The Real News Network spoke with mentioned the hearing on fracking or the committee’s role in promoting the horizontal drilling process. Instead, they all focused on the committee’s promotion of cap-and-trade.
Cap-and-trade places an overall cap on greenhouse gas emissions. To emit, polluters need to obtain emission permits, or “carbon credits,” issued by the federal government. Companies can then sell those permits to each other. To phase out carbon emissions, each year the government would issue fewer permits. As fewer are issued, each one becomes more valuable.
“Waxman-Markey was the first—and to this date, only—economy-wide cap-and-trade bill to pass either house of Congress,” said Jeff Duncan, who served on the Select Committee and as Markey’s Chief of Staff, and today works as a lobbyist.
But the push for cap-and-trade didn’t start with Waxman-Markey. While the first Select Committee was active, cap-and-trade was a key initiative of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a wide alliance of environmental and business organizations created in 2007 to champion business-friendly climate policy.
USCAP included representatives from “Big Green” groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (for whom Ana Unruh Cohen, a senior staffer for both the previous and current Select Committee, formerly worked). It also included energy companies such as DuPont and Duke Energy, car companies such as Ford and Chrysler, oil companies such as Shell and BP, and even the financial firm Lehman Brothers (until revelations about their involvement in the subprime mortgage crisis would force them to file for bankruptcy the following year). To participate, organizations were charged a $100,000 annual fee.
In January 2007, just weeks before the creation of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, USCAP published a report calling for the U.S. to implement market-driven climate policy, including cap-and-trade.
“Our environmental goal and economic objectives can best be accomplished through an economy-wide, market-driven approach that includes a cap and trade program that places specified limits on GHG emissions,” the report said.
Their call was heard, and in late 2008 two representatives released a cap-and-trade proposal. It was proposed by U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), a representative from Virginia’s coal country, and House Energy And Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, the representative who also successfully limited the power of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
“We have worked within the bounds of USCAP’s proposal because it represents a consensus among business, environmental, and other groups,” reads a memorandum on the legislation,
The legislation would have offered participants in the cap-and-trade program an exemption to the Clean Air Act, thereby weakening the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision, which concluded that federal agencies have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants. Dingell once called the Supreme Court ruling a “glorious mess.” The memorandum on the bill cited the case as a key rationale behind the bill’s introduction.
“[Dingell] dutifully represented Car Town … and the major car companies were against regulating carbon emissions at that time,” said a former Select Committee senior policy staffer, who is now a lobbyist and requested anonymity due to having clients in the industry.
Dingell was such an ally to the auto industry that he earned the nickname “Tailpipe Johnny.”
Dingell-Boucher never got a formal House introduction—it was merely floated as a “discussion draft.” But in January 2009, USCAP issued another report, titled “A Blueprint for Legislative Action.” It once again called for cap-and-trade legislation.
“Building on the principles and recommendations in our Call for Action, we believe our nation’s climate protection goals can be met in the most cost effective manner through an economy-wide, market-driven approach that includes a cap-and-trade program as a core element,” the report said. Many environmental groups criticized the proposal. It even compelled the National Wildlife Federation to leave USCAP.
“The National Wildlife Federation didn’t feel that it was the right time for us to be stipulating a policy compromise,” their Senior Vice President Jeremy Symons said at the time.
But the remaining members of USCAP supported the cap-and-trade bill Sens. Waxman and Markey introduced two months later. Much of the language it included was similar to that of Dingell-Boucher.
“This legislation will create clean energy jobs that can’t be shipped overseas, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and make America the global leader in energy technology,” Markey said in a Select Committee press release. “We will create jobs by the millions, save money by the billions, and unleash energy investment by the trillions.”
Though it passed in the House, Waxman-Markey never received a vote in the Senate. Still, some regard it as the most influential piece of climate legislation ever proposed in the U.S.
The Select Committee itself praised the bill in its final report.
“[It] remains the most comprehensive and detailed roadmap established to date, and should be a touchstone for future efforts in this sphere,” it said.
Former committee staffer Duncan said the bill was groundbreaking because it was so broad. “It was focused on all of these sources of carbon emissions, looking at utility emissions, looking at industrial emissions, you know, looking at everything,” he said. “And also looking at how we could use the transition from dependence on fossil fuels to the use of alternative fuels and efficiency, as a mechanism for helping to grow new industries and to increase America’s economic competitiveness.”
But many environmental justice advocates and scholars have long derided cap-and-trade as a false solution to the climate crisis. Waxman-Markey was also criticized for including subsidies to the oil and gas industry and an exemption to federal enforcement of the Clean Air Act—the same exemption to the Massachusetts v. EPA precedent found in Dingell-Boucher. To this day, some maintain that if that decision—won by Markey’s own state—was properly enforced by federal agencies, it would be one of the most powerful methods currently available to implement federal climate policy.
“Industries would still be free to burn dirty fossil fuels, but they would have to use very expensive, and in some cases nonexistent, new technology to meet emission standards,” wrote scholar Christian Parenti, author of the book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, of the importance of Massachusetts v. EPA in a 2013 paper.
“Or they would have to pay very steep and mounting fines for their emissions. Such penalties could reach thousands of dollars per day, per violation,” Parenti continued. “Thus, a de facto carbon tax. Then cheap fossil fuel energy would become expensive, driving investment toward carbon-neutral forms of clean energy like wind and solar.”
Yet A. Tianna Scozzaro—a former Select Committee staffer who is now director of the Sierra Club’s Gender Equity and Environment Program—praised Waxman-Markey for brokering a grand bargain.
“I think it was ultimately a really valuable exercise for groups to think collaboratively about what the solutions can look like,” she said. “Now we’ll need to be even faster and stronger and go further than they would have needed to 10 years ago. And so whether industry is amenable to being a part of that. I hope so. But, we’ll see.”
Others say Waxman-Markey was too compromised from the beginning.
The focus on cap-and-trade and USCAP as the driving force for such legislation served as the focus for a critical investigative examination of the era, titled “The Too Polite Revolution: Why the Recent Campaign to Pass Comprehensive Climate Legislation in the United States Failed.” It served as a reckoning of the political era funded by the Rockefeller Family Foundation, a major financier of U.S. environmental groups.
“It was really a political bill, it wasn’t a science bill,” John Passacantando, former Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, said in that report. “It wasn’t a bill that was going to address atmospheric CO2. It was, ‘How are we going to buy off the coal industry first because it’s a huge player in the Democratic Party?’”
Until the Democratic Party controls the Senate and White House, Green New Deal policies—like reaching net-zero emissions within a decade—surely will not pass. But longtime climate advocate Ben Schreiber, an international climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace who worked for environmental advocacy organization Friends of the Earth during the Waxman-Markey era, says it’s a feat that such policies are even being discussed.
“Any ‘solution’ that perpetuates the use of fossil fuels and gives companies an out is not commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face, let alone one that has been proven to exacerbate environmental injustice in communities bearing the brunt of fossil fuel pollution,” said Schreiber. He said today federal climate policy should move beyond Waxman-Markey.
The Sunrise Movement agrees.
“First off, no one should be able to pollute our air for free. Relying solely on cap and trade programs assume that existing or new markets can solve this problem for us on their own, and that’s simply not true,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, Communications Director for Sunrise.
But unlike Schrieber, Sunrise has not ruled out cap-and-trade altogether.
“These policies could fall under the umbrella of a larger Green New Deal. But to truly tackle the crisis at the scale and speed that science and justice demand, we have to go beyond market solutions,” said O’Hanlon.
Political Climate Change
In 2006, just before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was instated, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) led a campaign to get the House of Representatives back into the Democratic Party’s control. Emanuel shepherded in a wave of right-wing Democrats, many of whom were in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. Emanuel would go on to become chair of the House Democratic Caucus and eventually the first chief of staff for President Obama. Most recently, in 2011, he became the mayor of Chicago.
By comparison, the 2018 House elections saw a handful of progressive representatives elected, such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). In 2007, the Congressional Progressive Caucus had 72 members. Today it has 98 members, making it the second-biggest Democratic Party caucus. And the Green New Deal resolution sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez, buttressed by the activism of the Sunrise Movement, has 91 co-sponsors.
“Clearly, we would point to AOC as the ultimate champion of young people and the Green New Deal, but there’s all sorts of members of Congress and Senators that are willing to be champions of those issues at large,” said Tolkan. “But in those early days, any congressional champion was very far and few between. It was Ed Markey who was there with us from the very very beginning, when we were building Energy Action Coalition and Power Shift.”
And perhaps most symbolic of all, Markey, instead of championing cap-and-trade legislation, is currently on tour with the Sunrise Movement to promote the Green New Deal during congressional recess.
“Today, the science is demanding that we be bold. The movement is demanding that we be bold. The marketplace is demanding that we be bold. And the Green New Deal has to be bold,” Markey said in an interview with Vox. “I have the same goal I had in 2009, but the means to the end have to change to meet the political challenge of this era.”
Markey said the Green New Deal is better equipped to take on a climate crisis at this scale.
“We need a response equal to the magnitude of the crisis,” he explained. “That is what we are trying to create with the Green New Deal.”
Scozzaro, the former Select Committee staffer, said even the name of the Select Committee shows a shift in the perceived tenor and urgency of the climate crisis.
“Whereas “Energy Independence” was this kind of trying to be bipartisan and recognizing the energy independence from different international actors and the desire to have renewable energy be part of a suite of energy solutions, now, 10 years later, it is a crisis that Congress was more comfortable recognizing in the name of the committee,” she said.
But Josh Frank, deputy editor of CounterPunch and co-author of The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink, says that though the political climate has shifted, he still believes that the new committee—like the old one—will advocate for market-based solutions to the climate crisis.
“I think they’re going to sugarcoat it with some other things to … appease the more, I wouldn’t call them radical, but the more conscious folks that are really concerned about climate change and who might be more critical of a pure cap-and-trade deal,” he said. “But ultimately, if legislation comes out of anything that this committee does, it’s going to be cap-and-trade based, or market-based, and it’s not going to call for strict regulations. It’s not going to call for a phaseout of CO2 emissions, for example.”
Even if the committee says market-based solutions are the best they can do, Frank says the environmental movement must be critical and hold them accountable.
“Ultimately, I think people that are concerned about climate change and are looking to our representatives to come up with a plan, a tangible plan to curb emissions, need to look at the finer points of the legislation that’s being proposed,” he said.
Greenpeace’s Schreiber agrees.
“The test should be, are you going to make a suitable investment in renewable energy to make sure that we actually can get off of fossil fuels fast enough, and that we have the infrastructure, and that we do it justly,” he said. “Are you actually going to take on the fossil fuel industry?”