Congressional Republicans are resisting entreaties from Democrats to support a federal clean electricity mandate, widening the gulf between the two parties and showing the limits on what Republicans are willing to stomach as they shift toward saying that climate change is a problem worth addressing.
Supporters view so-called clean electricity standards as more likely to attract bipartisan support than carbon taxes, which the GOP also resists, because the resulting higher energy costs would not be as obvious to people. Clean standards are also more narrowly tailored than carbon taxes, applying only to electricity generation, meaning high-emitting sectors such as transportation would not be addressed.
But Republicans aren’t biting, expressing little desire to expand the federal government’s role beyond their preferred formula of funding clean energy research and development.
“Yeah, hidden taxes are the best, aren’t they?” Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sarcastically told the Washington Examiner. “Why is it necessary?”
More than half of the states, some of them Republican-led, have adopted clean electricity standards or more restrictive renewable portfolio standards. These mandates vary from state to state, but they generally require utilities to obtain an increasing amount of electricity from renewable and zero-carbon energy sources, such as wind and solar.
Four states – Hawaii, California, New Mexico, and Washington – have passed laws mandating 100% clean or zero-carbon electricity by 2050.
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., the fourth-ranked Democrat in the House, introduced legislation last month to impose a nationwide clean electricity standard. In unveiling the bill, Smith and Luján presented it as a Republican-friendly measure.
“There has been a tradition of bipartisan work on renewable energy and clean energy standards,” Smith told reporters on a press call, noting that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, signed a bill in 2007 imposing a renewable electricity mandate in his state.
Smith and Luján sought to broaden support for their bill by allowing the use of nuclear power and carbon capture technology on coal plants to count toward the mandate, as well as wind and solar. Their legislation aims to make the U.S. electricity sector more than 90% clean by midcentury or soon after.
The bill also allows for regional variations in how quickly utilities must wean themselves off carbon-emitting power sources because it bases compliance on a utility’s historical percentage of clean generation. In coal-dependent states such as Wyoming and West Virginia, utilities could shift away from coal over a longer time frame since they would be starting from a smaller percentage of clean electricity.
These compromises helped Smith and Luján’s bill earn the endorsement of unions, which generally oppose more aggressive proposals to eliminate fossil fuels, and utilities. Among its supporters are United Steelworkers and Exelon, a large nuclear-dependent utility.
Republicans say they support the inclusion of non-renewable electricity sources, such as nuclear and carbon capture, but they are steadfast in opposing any form of federal mandate. They say states should have the right to choose their electricity mix. Republicans also contend a federal mandate is unnecessary because the U.S. has led the world in emissions declines since 2000, primarily due to cheap natural gas from the shale boom replacing coal in the electricity sector.
“If we have the greatest reductions in the world and are doing it under our current strategy that is working, why do the feds need to come in and have Big Brother telling the states what they can and can’t do?” Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, the top Republican of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, told the Washington Examiner.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the most outspoken Republican advocates for addressing climate change, offered a similar argument. “I would rather not be in the place where it’s a forcing mechanism and a mandate,” she said. “We have made considerable headway without a mandate.” She said she told Smith that she would consider the bill but that she is not signing onto the concept yet.
Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, another Republican climate hawk, is also not embracing a mandate. His office said he prefers to focus on building support for his carbon tax legislation.
While Democrats struggle to find support for their proposal, at least one Republican is working on his own clean electricity standard. Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia plans to introduce a proposal merging a clean electricity standard with government investments in innovation, meaning the plan would be first to spend on new technologies to bring down their cost before imposing a mandate. But his office is not ready to share the details of his plan, which is still subject to change.
Molly Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Smith, said the senator is not discouraged by the lack of Republican support.
“The bill was just introduced and Sen. Smith continues conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to build as much support as possible for this ambitious and achievable plan,” Morrissey said.
Democrats and environmentalists say state-level progress is insufficient to reduce emissions at the scale necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Critics also note that, while the U.S. does have the largest absolute emissions declines of any country between 2000 and 2017, it started from a large baseline, leading the world in cumulative emissions. In 2018, U.S. emissions increased.
Smith and Luján’s bill would reduce power sector greenhouse gas emissions 61% by 2035, according to a report by the environmental group Resources for the Future. The legislation would also increase retail electricity rates by 4% in 2035, on average.
“Without a federal standard, we will have a hodgepodge of states, some that have taken this step and some that have not,” said Dan Reicher, a former assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, who advised Smith and Luján on their bill. “The climate challenge requires a more comprehensive approach.”