Senate GOP Counters Ocasio-Cortez With Free-Market Climate Bills

Ari Natter
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Senate GOP Counters Ocasio-Cortez With Free-Market Climate Bills

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Republicans are readying a response to populist climate initiatives such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” with measures that they say adhere to their free-market principles and stand a better chance of becoming law.

The emerging proposals to fight climate change would avoid imposing dramatic cuts to carbon dioxide emissions. Instead, they seek to promote clean energy technology such as energy storage, renewable power and carbon-capture technologies. One measure would create an investment fund to pay for the research.

“What we’re doing is trying to come up with on something that actually has a path to getting bipartisan support,” said Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican crafting legislation aimed at promoting renewable energy. “We’re serious about trying to make a difference and not just making a point.”

The first of the Senate Republican bills, which could be introduced as early as Wednesday, seeks to reduce the cost of grid-scale energy storage -- a technology that could transform the wind and solar industries by allowing the resources to produce power around the clock. Most of the power they provide today is limited to when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

“Our bipartisan legislation would help catalyze the development of this technology that holds great promise in the fight against climate change by supporting clean energy,” Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins said in a statement Tuesday.

Some Democrats backing the effort say it represents an opportunity even if they believe stronger legislation is needed.

“We have to be articulating the big picture solutions that are actually going to meet the scale of the climate crisis, but at the same time recognize that we are not in charge of the Senate floor right now,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, who is partnering with Collins on the energy storage bill. “When you can build bipartisan consensus around something that truly matters,” he added, “we need to every opportunity to do that.”

Republican senators supporting the effort, many of whom are up for re-election in 2020, see a chance to emphasize alternatives to progressive plans by Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, and others proposed by her party’s candidates for president.

The Republican solutions come as the party has slowly shifted from ignoring or sowing doubt about climate change to acknowledging the problem -- following increased voter anxiety about catastrophic hurricanes, flooding and wildfires and back-to-back scientific reports that found urgent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are needed.

Environmentalists’ Response

Critics say the Republican solutions are too little too late.

“Innovation may have been an acceptable position two or three decades ago, but today amounts to climate denial,” said Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “We have the technological solutions we need to transition to 100% renewables. The problem isn’t our technology the problem is the politics.”

Asked his thoughts on the effort, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer simply said: “Necessary, not sufficient.”

And Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the Senate’s sponsor of the Green New Deal, cautioned against moving forward with the “same warmed over ideas from the past.”

“Carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear power are part of their traditional playbook,” Markey said in an interview, saying he wanted Republicans to instead support long-term tax credits for wind, solar, and battery storage technologies.

But if the goal is to reduce emissions, “I think there is more than one way to do it and my preferred method is through innovation,” Texas Senator John Cornyn said in an interview. “This is basically trying to get out of the way and let the free enterprise system create the solution other than government regulation.”

Cornyn is working on a bill to spur new research and development for carbon capture, including new ways of capturing emissions from natural gas, which is abundant in his home state. Cornyn told reporters on a phone call he expects his legislation will be among “a number of bills that will make up an effort to show that we do have a good alternative, actually a better alternative” to the Green New Deal.

Read the text of the House Green New Deal resolution here

House Democrats, who won control of the chamber last year vowing strong action on climate, aren’t exactly jumping at the opportunity to work with Senate Republicans.

“I’d have to see this package,” said Florida Representative Kathy Castor, who chairs the special committee established by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to find solutions to climate change. She said earlier this month the committee will “examine” a ban on oil drilling and other fossil fuel extraction from federal land.

New funding for clean energy technologies are also being eyed. Republican Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Bloomberg they are crafting legislation that would create a new Clean Energy Investment Fund.

“I’d like to have a public-private approach to it and incentivize the private sector,” Graham said in an interview, adding he’d like a “government fund that could leverage the private sector.”

The bill could fund carbon capture and advanced nuclear technologies, said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who is working on the bill. Other Republicans who are involved, Graham said, include Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who has called for doubling energy research funding as a way to fight climate change.

“Innovation, not regulation, is the way to go,” Graham said. “But the the first thing you do is say it’s a real problem. Man is contributing to climate change and it’s a real problem and we need to address it.”

(Updates with Collins, Schumer and Markey starting in the fifth paragraph.)

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