After climate summit, House Democrats feel heat on budget vote

Reconciliation package includes billions in climate-related spending and tax incentives but leaves out much sought by climate hawks

Rep. Sean Casten, shown with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2020 during a news conference on climate issues, said attendees at the international climate summit asked questions such as, “why didn't the United States sign on to the pledge to stop financing coal plants"?  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Sean Casten, shown with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2020 during a news conference on climate issues, said attendees at the international climate summit asked questions such as, “why didn't the United States sign on to the pledge to stop financing coal plants"? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 15, 2021 at 3:55pm

House Democrats who attended last week’s international climate summit in Glasgow returned describing a reception that combined sincere appreciation for a change in U.S. policy direction on the issue with real skepticism about the extent and reliability of America’s commitment — especially as they meet resistance in their own party to emission reduction policies in their reconciliation package.

“The hard questions that we consistently got were, you know, why didn't the United States sign on to the pledge to stop financing coal plants, because we who acknowledge the science don't understand why you wouldn't do that. How much are the commitments of the United States going to be durable if the House flips to be controlled by people who deny science?” Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., said Friday during a virtual news conference.

“What happens if the White House is again inhabited by someone who believes that the laws of physics are negotiable? What happens if certain senators wake up on the wrong side of the bed tomorrow morning?”

House leaders are planning to vote this week on a budget reconciliation package that includes hundreds of billions of dollars in climate-related spending and tax incentives, higher fees and royalty rates for oil and gas operations on public lands, and a new program to limit methane emissions escaping from oil and gas operations.

But that package leaves out many of the things sought by climate hawks — even higher funding levels, a tax on carbon emissions, and a Clean Electricity Performance Program to push utilities toward renewable energy sources.

And even the latest pared-down compromise version faces continuing resistance from Republicans and some Democrats aligned with the fossil fuel industry, with the most prominent being Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

The Biden administration touted progress at the summit on global efforts to reduce methane and deforestation, a new agreement with China and other measures.

But during news conferences in Glasgow, U.S. lawmakers faced tough questions from reporters about whether the United States’ new stance can be trusted. At one point, reporters pressed them on fossil fuel subsidies and why Democrats aren’t doing more to eliminate them.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she’s long been trying to get rid of those subsidies because oil companies don’t need more financial incentives to drill but “there is in the Congress still support for them to have that.”

'Reality of the Senate'

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said he’s sponsored legislation to end subsidies but couldn’t include that in this budget package due to the “reality of the Senate.”

In the same vein, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said it’s clear the United States must be more aggressive in addressing climate change and pointed to a compromise on a new methane fee that would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to help the industry comply, phase the fee in over several years and include an exemption for operations that face permitting delays in upgrading their facilities. He said he would have preferred a tougher regulations-based approach.

“There are just political constraints and realities we're still trying to navigate," Huffman said. "And you can point to contradictions and inconsistencies and inadequacies and all of that, but I hope what you're hearing is a resolve to step up and do everything that we possibly can and we will get there.”

Democrats suggested the best response to international skepticism of U.S. commitments would be to pass the budget package this week, which they described as an ambitious effort that includes unprecedented spending to tackle climate.

That includes a greenhouse gas reduction fund in the bill to support rapid deployment of low and zero-emission technology, the methane emissions reduction program and technology grants through the Department of Energy.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., was asked during Friday’s news conference about what seems to be never-ending negotiations, particularly with Manchin, over the details of the package and specifically Manchin’s recent comments that he opposes boosted electric vehicle tax credits for vehicles produced with union labor.

Castor expressed support for fair labor standards and also said lawmakers need to act soon.

“It's time to vote,” she said. “We've been negotiating, President Biden's been negotiating, for many months now. We have worked out a package that meets our clean energy goals.”

Financial support

The reconciliation bill is not the only legislation with provisions related to the nation's international climate commitments.

A goal for industrialized nations to raise $100 billion annually and donate that money to poor countries emerged in 2009 during U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. 

Yet the 23 wealthy countries, including the U.S., that backed that pledge have consistently fallen short in the years since, according to research the Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank in London, published in September. Only Germany, Norway and Sweden have “been paying their fair share,” the researchers said.

Biden pledged at the U.N. General Assembly in September the U.S. would contribute $11.4 billion annually by 2024, double the amount he promised in April of $5.7 billion annually. Developing nations that receive money from the fund use it for climate adaptation projects.

The White House will have to rely on Congress for that funding, much of which comes through the State-Foreign Operations spending bill.

In its budget request for fiscal 2022, the administration called for $2.5 billion in international climate financing, though House appropriators increased that sum to $2.8 billion.

The House spending bill would fund the Green Climate Fund, one of the primary international climate finance programs the U.S. supports, with $1.6 billion, while Senate appropriators proposed $1.45 billion.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee has called for $450 million for the Clean Technology Fund, which is based at the World Bank and finances low-carbon energy projects.

Advocates

Beyond Congress, some progressive environmental groups have called for the Biden administration to take more aggressive executive action on climate in the face of congressional resistance.

Food & Water Watch Policy Director Mitch Jones said in a statement Friday that while it was encouraging to see some support for limiting global fossil fuel supply at the summit, the back-and-forth over conference agreement drafts demonstrated just how far the world’s political leaders remain from meaningfully addressing the crisis.

“Governments that cannot directly and forcefully confront the fossil fuel industry are doing nothing but advertising their failure,” Jones said. “Even a call to stop government fossil fuel subsidies — a modest but necessary first step — had to be weakened in order to coddle corporate polluters.”

Jones urged the Biden administration to take more aggressive actions, including a halt to oil and gas drilling on public lands, a ban on oil and gas exports and denials of new power plants and pipelines.