Rep. Garret Graves says he wasn’t keen on joining the select committee to address climate change formed by the new Democratic House majority in January.
But on Feb. 28, weeks after the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis had been formed and long after the Democrats had announced their roster, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appointed the Louisiana Republican as co-chairman.
“There were a number of people both on and off the Hill that had encouraged me to do this earlier, and I didn’t really have it on my radar and quite frankly, wasn’t very interested,” Graves said.
But now he says he’s optimistic some bipartisan ideas can come out of the panel. Graves hails from a state dependent on oil and gas for a big portion of its economy and on its coastline for tourism and seafood industry. Louisiana is also adversely affected by climate change, including sea level rise and coastal erosion.
“There are adaptation and mitigation measures that I think should be carried out, and it’s a mistake to pretend as though those changes aren’t happening or to not acknowledge it,” Graves said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “I think the fiscally conservative thing to do is actually to make proactive adaptation type investment. … I do feel strongly about that.”
Graves hasn’t worked directly with the select committee chairwoman, Kathy Castor, on legislation before, but said he has met with the Florida Democrat “a couple of times” since becoming co-chairman.
“This is a new friendship at this point,” Graves said.
Castor has — at least publicly — embraced Graves as her counterpart.
“Mr. Graves represents a state and district that is bearing escalating costs from climate change, just like my district and the state of Florida,” she said in an emailed response to questions. “These impacts do not discriminate based on political party. … The good news is that climate solutions, from deploying more clean energy to making our homes and businesses more energy efficient, enjoy broad bipartisan support.”
Graves said he sees opportunity to work with Democrats on common issues that include making coastal areas more resilient to climate impacts.
“I suspect that this committee — part of the intention by the speaker — is to try to make this a divisive political issue, but when I look at it, I actually see some areas where we absolutely should be cooperating and working together,” he said. “And that’s what I intend to attempt to do, and that includes focusing on the greatest urgency that faces us right now, which is the sea rise, the mitigation or adaptation type investments.”
Voted against climate action
Although unlike many Republicans, Graves acknowledges the need to act on climate change, he has been criticized by green groups for often voting otherwise. In 2015, Graves voted with House Republicans to reject the Clean Power Plan. Last year, he voted for a resolution rejecting a carbon tax and for an amendment to the Interior-Environment spending bill prohibiting the government from considering the social cost of carbon. The League of Conservation voters has awarded him a 3 percent lifetime score for his environmental record.
He rejected calls from progressive groups that members of the climate select committee should be precluded from taking money from fossil fuel donors.
“I vote against companies; I vote against organizations; I represent people, so I don’t subscribe to the premise that members of Congress are wholesale bribed by campaign contributions,” he said.
The oil and gas industry was Graves’ top industry donor from 2013-2018, giving him more than $500,000, according to analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org.
Although he wasn’t in Congress yet, Graves said he was “the hardest person on BP when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened.” After the 2010 accident that gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for about three months, Graves was appointed as Louisiana’s lead representative in assessing the damage to natural resources and negotiating with the company in the recovery efforts.
After Hurricane Katrina, Graves became chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, an EPA office established to bolster hurricane protection, flood control, ecosystem restoration and other community resiliency efforts.
Though a surprising choice received with cynicism by several climate advocates, the Environmental Defense Fund, which often works with oil and gas companies on climate action, embraced Graves for the role.
Elizabeth Gore, EDF’s senior vice president for political affairs, described the selection of Graves to lead Republicans on the select committee as a “constructive step” toward bipartisan progress on climate change.
Watch: McConnell rips Green New Deal price tag: cheaper to buy every American a Ferrari
“Louisiana is ground zero for both climate impacts and carbon production. Congressman Graves understands the impacts deeply and has been a leader in addressing them,” Gore said in a March 1 news release. “Mr. Graves also recognizes the established science of climate change. That recognition is critical in addressing carbon emissions — the unaddressed critical component of climate policy.”
When the select committee was formed, progressive advocates, including New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had pushed for its formation, shunned it as toothless for its lack of power to write legislation or issue subpoenas.
Some centrist Democrats including House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey suggested that standing committees were the best avenues for legislative action on climate change. Graves echoed those views.
“You have standing committees that have expertise in these areas,” he said. “I don’t think that you come in and just provide legislative and subpoena authority to this committee that has cross-cutting jurisdictions, because then all you do is you cause all sorts of consternation and conflict among different committees in the Congress and that doesn’t lead to improved functionality.”
The select committee’s job description doesn’t include the Green New Deal, as initially sought by the Democrats’ progressive wing. The Green New Deal, an agenda that calls for a massive remake of the U.S. economy and a range of social justice reforms as part of a plan to combat climate change and help the country adopt, has divided some Democrats and been framed as a punchline by Republicans.
“The reason you have a committee like this and the reason that you go through and do hearings is to help to get input from experts to help inform the actions of the Congress, and so on the one hand, I’m trying really hard to keep an open mind,” Graves said. “On the other hand, I think that when you go through and you read components of this thing, it more so resembles a high school, maybe grade school, term paper that is full of idealism and virtually absent of reality.”
The proponents of a Green New Deal had a somewhat messy rollout of their nonbinding resolution in February, and that put them on the defensive against conservative pundits and lawmakers.
“I love throwing things at the wall … but I think that if I were some of the authors and advocates of the Green New Deal, I first would have spent a little bit more time thinking through it and refining it,” Graves said. “I would have spent a whole lot more time working with people that are actually in the real world, real industry, even innovators in the energy space, learning about what’s actually doable, what’s achievable, as opposed to throwing out these things that I think just lack reality and would destroy the United States economy to the benefit, quite frankly, of other countries.”