Yesterday the Green New Deal, in the form of a resolution, was brought directly to the Senate floor for a vote. S. J. Res. 8 made it into the full Senate through a procedural ploy that limited public debate by side-stepping what should have been a routine referral to a standing subject matter committee, e.g., Energy and Natural Resources, for open hearings.
As expected, the measure failed to garner the needed votes. Had it succeeded, it would have put the Senate on record denying the proposition that the Federal Government has a duty to create a Green New Deal.
The ostensible purpose of the resolution was to express the opinion of the Senate on the concept of the Green New Deal, as it has been sketched out in S. Res. 59 and H. Res. 109 by its more than 100 sponsors and co-sponsors. In Congressional parlance, these are known as “sense of” resolutions.
The election of a Democratic House majority has radically altered the national dialogue on climate change. It is fair to say that the primary catalyst for the change has been Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and very progressive proponents of the Green New Deal like the Sunshine Movement and Justice Democrats. Whether or not one agrees with their tactics and proposed policies, there’s no denying they’ve struck the match that caused climate to burst upon the 2019-2020 political scene in a way no one imagined before last November’s midterm elections.
Notwithstanding the outcome of the vote on S. J. Res. 8, the climate cat is out of the bag. There’s very little Senate Majority Leader McConnell, the White House, the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation can do to stuff the newly freed feline back where it came from other than continuing to tell tales of Democratic socialists wanting to morally and financially bankrupt the nation.
We fix the pipes in Flint [Mich.] first. We fix the electrical grid in Puerto Rico first.
And we fully fund the pensions of coal miners in West Virginia.
-- Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)
Operators Get the Mines—What Do Miners and Taxpayers Get?
President Trump and Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) promised to stop the war on coal and put miners back to work. Because of market economics, these promises are hollow and cannot be kept. However, what of other promises that can still be kept?
This is a tale about the negative environmental and health effects of coal and obtaining justice for America’s coal miners. It is also a tale of how large contributors to the campaigns of both Trump and McConnell can appear to have been given dispensation to duck out of their obligations.
The heart of today’s health and pension fund problems dates to 1946 when President Truman took control of the nation’s coal mines to keep them operating during the biggest strike wave in US history. During the war years, labor worked under a no-strike pledge. With World War II over, virtually every sector of industry—auto, oil steel, coal meatpacking, railroads, electrical transportation, communication, and utilities—walked off their jobs seeking higher wages and benefits.
The coal strike was settled by the Krug-Lewis Agreement of 1946. The agreement was between the federal government and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The deal was subsequently accepted by coal operators. It established two funds for miners—one covering health care (black lung) and the other union pensions.
Because of the Krug-Lewis Agreement, coal companies have historically borne responsibility for funding the miners’ health and pension funds. Today both funds are in trouble and being made worse by companies seeking the protection of bankruptcy courts and asking to be relieved of their health and pension fund obligations. Requests granted by the courts.
Since Day 1 of the Trump presidency, the auto industry had been hoping to re-negotiate the deal it struck with the Obama administration on auto and light truck fuel efficiency standards (CAFE) for the period 2021 through 2026. On April 3, 2018, then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Agency was rolling back the previously agreed to targets—proving that in the age of Trump wishes can come true.
Now, nearly a year later, the auto industry is learning the meaning of the phrase be careful what you wish for; it just might come true. The bad news came to industry representatives in late February on a conference call with the White House. They were told that the Administration had cut-off any further conversations with California officials and was going ahead with its proposed Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule that freezing the standards at 2020 levels.
The freeze has been called the Trump administration’s most environmentally significant regulatory rollback yet" by the Rhodium Group following its penetrating analysis of the rule’s impact on the environment. The call is not surprising. The transportation sector has surpassed electricity as the major contributor of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere; and, Trump’s efficiency 36.9 mpg is standard is 14.5 mpg more lenient than Obama’s 51.4 mpg.
Before going into why the auto industry is unhappy about the freeze decision and the role played in all of this by California, a bit of background will help to set the stage.
Nontraditional alliances are forming to defeat local projects
I had coffee with my landlord—Mark— the other day. He asked me about an article in the Washington Post (WaPo). The piece was about environmental advocates opposing the site of a solar farm that is to provide Georgetown University with up to half its electric needs. He was surprised by the conflict and said he naturally assumed that solar energy developers and enviros are hand in glove with each other.
Mark asked if such conflicts happened often? More often than one would imagine, I replied. As to the “hand-in-glove” remark, I said something about it being true in a sense—if the gloves were for boxing and each side had a pair.
I think Mark’s assumption, that things are all good between solar developers and the environmental community is typical of most people’s understanding of the relationship between clean energy project developers and the environmental community. More to the point I don’t think enough attention is being paid to these kinds of local conflicts by big-picture thinkers in Washington.
Such conflicts promise to slow the transition to a low-carbon economy. Whether Green New Dealers or carbon taxers no allowance seems to be made for opposition to the projects needed to get the US off the fossil fuel standard. The parties to the conflicts are not just climate defenders and deniers.
Leadership has no age requirement
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the voters of New York's 14th congressional district for having elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). I think it fair to say had AOC not been elected that climate change would still be vying for a place at the front of the pack of national political priorities. Today the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming are one of the top two or three policy issues talked about on Capitol Hill.
I would even venture that climate change is becoming one of the topics most talked about—or like religion and politics not to be talked about—around dinner tables. I credit the rising tide of youth activism for this rather sudden reversal of fortune.
What AOC, other newly elected House Democrats, and organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats, Fridays For Future, have added to the mix is a new voice—a very large and loud voice—being heard around the world.
Notwithstanding years of opinion surveys showing climate and the environment as abstract matters of voter concern, these expressions seemed never to translate into sustained political action. Congress has been virtually inert on climate matters for over a decade. The boldest federal climate defense measures over the period have been the result of executive actions and judicial decisions.
Executive orders—as we’re seeing—are as easily erased by one president as they were first written by another. Litigation is lengthy, and the judiciary is limited in what it can order. With the rise of student activists and their close relationships with dynamic progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez, it is possible that the pattern of the past is about to be broken. For Mother Earth, it has already been too long in coming.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.