Hundreds of organizations have signed a letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer urging him to lead opposition to an energy bill that they say would increase dependence on fossil fuel production and hasten ‘climate chaos’
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump’s recent decision to abandon the Paris Agreement isn’t the only US move causing environmental alarm. The Senate is said to consider a massive energy bill that critics say would promote fossil fuels and pollute our air and water. More than 350 groups have sent a letter to minority leader Chuck Schumer, urging him to oppose the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017. They warn, quote, “This energy bill is long-term commitment pledge between America and the fossil fuel industry and it will hasten our reckless advance toward climate chaos.” The letter was organized by the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. Joining me is the group’s Senior Policy Advocate, Mitch Jones. Mitch, welcome. MITCH JONES: Thanks, Aaron. I’m happy to be with you. AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us. Talk to us about this bill, what it contains. MITCH JONES: This piece of legislation, which actually was introduced in the last Congress with the Orwellian name “Energy Modernization Act,” which I guess we’ve convinced them to drop this time around, would actually lock us into fossil fuels by doing a few different things. One, it would speed the process to approve exports of liquefied natural gas. That’s natural gas coming primarily from fracking now in this country, which as we know is a dangerous process for extracting gas. It’s turned into a liquid, so that it can be shipped overseas to fuel overseas economies and manufacturing. For one, it would make the Department of Energy make a decision on exporting natural gas in a truncated timeline that would not allow for adequate environmental reviews and those requests. Secondly, it would give even more authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC, which already has a lot of authority when it comes to the siting of natural gas pipelines, again, related to fracking. There’s been a real boom in gas pipelines in the regions where fracking is taking place, like the northeast of the United States and, again, out in the Dakotas. Already it’s very difficult for communities that are being affected by those pipelines, communities that don’t want potentially explosive natural gas pipelines coming through their neighborhoods and near their schools, to stop those projects. This bill contains language that would limit the amount of time that communities have to try to convince their state and local authorities, which still have some role to play in those decisions, to stop the projects. Then, the last thing that I’ll mention for this first bit is that this bill would authorize the Federal Government to spend almost $200 million to begin the process of looking for something called “methane hydrates.” What that is, is the next level of extreme fossil fuel energy. It’s methane, which is the same gas as in natural gas, the same thing in fracked gas, except it’s trapped frozen under the ocean floor. This is extreme energy 2.0 and this bill contains almost $200 million for the Federal Government to explore how to get those fossil fuels. AARON MATÉ: Mitch, your group talks about this bill as being, as I said, a long-term commitment between the government and the fossil fuel industry. As with any major piece of legislation like this, the operative question is, who benefits? Who are the major players who benefit from this measure and who is pushing it on their behalf in the Senate? MITCH JONES: The major players that are going to benefit from this are the major oil and gas companies. It’s going to be companies like Cheniere, who is the leading L&G export company in the country. It’s going to be companies like Exxon. It’s going to be all of the various oil and gas companies in this country that are seeking to exploit fracked natural gas, but also fracked oil. The bill is currently being pushed mainly by Senator Lisa Murkowski, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee from Alaska, and by the Senator Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. He made the decision, before the 4th of July recess that the Senate has just returned from, to make a parliamentary maneuver that means that this bill isn’t going to be heard in committee, where we won’t have hearings. We won’t have the opportunity to try to get friendly amendments in committee to make this bill a better bill. Instead, he’s bypassing the committees and bringing it directly to the floor, so that whenever he feels like it’s time to go, he can just move this bill to the floor. He’ll be able to get it off the floor and over to the House, where we know, despite the fact that this bill is already a boondoggle for the fossil fuel cartel, we know that when it goes to the House it will be made even worse. That’s why we’re fighting so hard with those 350 groups, which you mentioned, to make sure that the Senate, and in particular the Democrats in the Senate, stand up and say, “We’re not going to support this bill. We’re not going to move this bill. We’re not going to give Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell a major victory and a handout to their friends in the oil and gas industry.” AARON MATÉ: What kind of response have you gotten so far from Democrats on that front? MITCH JONES: I’ve spoken personally with about 10 different offices. It’s been a range of, “We have no idea what we’re going to do,” to, “Well, we voted for it last time, but we’re open to changing our minds.” At the moment, it’s still really in flux. It’s still really in play. I heard earlier today that one member of the Senate staff was telling somebody that they’re hearing hundreds of thousands of phone calls have been made to the Hill on this issue. I think that might be a slight exaggeration, but we know that the offices are hearing from their constituents that they don’t want more Federal giveaway to the fossil fuel industry and, in fact, if we’re going to pass energy legislation in this Congress, that it should be energy legislation that promotes really truly clean renewable energy, like solar and wind. AARON MATÉ: I’m wondering, though, as Democrats are hearing from constituents who oppose the bill whether they’re also hearing from fossil fuel donors who are in favor of it. Of course, it’s not just Republicans who take donations from the fossil fuel industry. MITCH JONES: That’s true. In fact, Maria Cantwell, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington, is co-sponsor of this legislation, so it isn’t a Republican vs. Democrat issue. It’s a issue of whether or not the Senate is going to side with the fossil fuel industry or side with their constituents who want a renewable energy future. I haven’t yet encountered oil lobbyists, but I’m sure that they’re making the rounds as surely as we’re making the rounds. I’m sure they’re making phone calls and I’m sure they’re cutting checks. The filing deadline for reporting campaign contributions for the first half of the year has just passed. I noticed, in doing a little research on that, that the PAC, the Political Action Committee, tied to Exxon, has given just in the second quarter of this year over $200,000 in contributions to members of Congress. We know that they’re spending money to try to get these sorts of bills through, but we’ve learned in fights elsewhere in this country that it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to win. We were able to kill this bill in the last Congress. We just got some reports recently about campaign and lobby spending in Maryland, where it turned out that the American Petroleum Institute had spent 1.4, I believe it was, million dollars lobbying in Maryland this year, yet People Power were able to ban fracking in Maryland. The lobbyists are out there trying to buy votes, but we know that if constituents continue to call offices and visit offices, that we can really organize the political power to stop these sorts of handouts to fossil fuels. AARON MATÉ: You mentioned before the word “Orwellian” when talking about the language in this bill. There’s a lot of it, in terms of the subsections that reference greater energy efficiency, improving conservation. I just noticed that the group, the Nature Conservancy, came out in support of this measure. They put out a press release saying, “Senate energy bill would advance conservation.” They highlight elements that include energy efficiency, Land and Water Conservation Fund, Grid Modernization, habitat conservation. Can you respond to that group offering their support on these elements? MITCH JONES: Sure. We’ve been hearing from some organizations, like the Nature Conservancy and others as well as from some senate offices, that inclusion, especially of a reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is a major priority for those organizations and that they’re willing to take that language in this bill as a trade-off for the pro fossil fuel energy components of this bill. What I would say to that is that that language was in this version, the Senate version of this bill, in the last Congress. The chairman of the Natural Resources Committee in the House, Representative Bishop, made it very clear that he was not going to allow legislation to pass that contained permanent reauthorization of that fund. I think to support a bill because of language that you know is not going to become law when it contains other provisions that are deeply harmful to the planet and to our climate is an unfortunate decision to have made. I would just also highlight, in the context of Orwellian language, that there is a subtitle of this bill entitled “Renewables,” which doesn’t include either solar or wind. This, again, just isn’t the right type of energy legislation that we need, especially as we’re seeing more and more stories coming out, it seems every day, about not only how real climate change is, but by how rapidly it’s happening. We need to stop with these sorts of trade-offs that lock in fossil fuels and instead demand legislation that’s going to promote true renewables, like wind and solar. AARON MATÉ: I don’t get that. If you’re talking about renewable energy without solar and wind, then what are you left with? MITCH JONES: They’re talking about things like geothermal, which harnesses temperature differences within the Earth’s surface, although I would point out that the language for that actually has exclusions for proper environmental review. They also talk about things like hydropower, so dams and those sorts of things, and call that “renewable energy.” Again, they do that to the exclusion of solar and wind. It’s not that solar and wind are never mentioned in the bill, but they’re not promoted in the section of the bill, which is, by its title, supposed to be promoting renewable energy. AARON MATÉ: What would be the interest in deliberately excluding solar and wind? MITCH JONES: I think that, as solar and wind have begun to grow at more rapid rates over the past decade or so, that they are posing a significant threat to the fossil fuel industry and, for that matter, to the electric utilities, when we talked about rooftop solar. Those are two very powerful industries and they’re especially very powerful within energy policy. They are seeking to do everything they can, not only in Washington but across the country, to curtail the growth of wind and solar power. There was a recent story in the New York Times about the work that the Koch brothers and their various groups had been doing to try to fight against net metering, which is a policy that promotes rooftop solar. We know that solar and wind are squarely in the sights of the fossil fuel industry and I believe that’s really the reason why we’re not seeing real strong robust provisions promoting wind and solar, make it into a bill such as this one. AARON MATÉ: Finally, Mitch, when we hear from proponents of bills like these, the word we hear often in their defense is “jobs,” that energy measures are pro jobs. I’m wondering if you could comment on the veracity of that and also whether you think the environmental movement is doing a good enough job in addressing that issue and trying to include workers in the struggle for a new green energy economy? MITCH JONES: I think that if you look at where jobs in the energy sector are actually being created these days, they’re not being created in oil or gas or coal, they’re being created more and more in solar and wind. Energy policy can and does mean jobs, but it’s meaning jobs in wind, it’s meaning jobs in solar. It’s meaning jobs in energy efficiency where, in energy efficiency, these are jobs, generally speaking, that can’t be outsourced, that can’t be off-shored. This is retrofitting homes. This is working in your community to save people energy. Those are the sorts of energy jobs that we need to be promoting. I would agree with you that I think the environmental community has not, up until now, done enough to promote the jobs angle, the “Just Transition,” as we call it, when we’re talking about transitioning to renewable energy. We have Food & Water Watch support transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2035. A central component of that is making sure that we also have a trade policy and an industrial policy that focuses on investing and creating those jobs here, investing in energy efficiency so that we can make sure that we have jobs that can’t be off-shored, but also in making sure that we have solar panels being built in this country, that we have wind turbines being built in this country, that we have the storage batteries that we’re going to need with wind and solar being built in this country so that we are providing good-paying jobs with good benefits that allow people to have a manufacturing career and support and raise their family in a way that my father, who was a Teamster, was able to do. I think that’s an important component and I believe that more and more organizations and individuals involved in the environmental community are waking up to the fact that we need to wed, not only our environmental policy, but also our trade and industrial policies together and also tax policies and a variety of others to make sure that this transition, which is a necessary transition, is done in a way that is just and equitable. AARON MATÉ: Mitch Jones, Senior Policy Advocate at Food & Water Watch, thanks very much. MITCH JONES: Thank you, Aaron. AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.