Whitehouse Touts Funding, Plan for Climate Mitigation


Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is confident the Biden administration will address the many challenges of the climate crisis. (ecoRI News)

During a Jan. 8 interview with ecoRI News reporter Tim Faulkner, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., expounded on the unheralded and unexpected environmental and climate legislation stashed within the fiscal 2021 $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in late December.

The National Resources Defense Council described the financial package as “perhaps the most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed.”

Whitehouse explained the importance of the bill, which contains several of his Senate initiatives, and what’s ahead for the environment under the Biden administration. He also discussed Gov. Gina Raimondo’s environmental record, the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement. The following is an edited version of their discussion.

Why is this spending bill significant?
When I first got to the Senate, climate was a very bipartisan issue. That all changed when Citizens United was decided in January 2010. But in 2007, 2008, and 2009 it was super bipartisan in the Senate. And what the fossil-fuel industry did with its Citizens United money is basically suppress any dissent in the Republican Party.

So from that day forward we’ve been in this situation in which Republicans have been politically captive to the fossil-fuel industry. So in this bill we had the chance to do a lot of small things that flew under the radar and we didn’t make a lot of noise about. And the fossil-fuel industry is picking its fights these days and some of the big guns like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been blown up by some of their members, so now they’re less aggressive against climate-related measures.

We did not want to put a flag on a lot of this stuff; we just wanted to make sure we got it through in a bipartisan fashion and got it through this must-pass bill and didn’t make a big commotion about it until it was done.

What about the bill’s extension of incentives and subsidies for renewable energy?
That was my priority to help make sure our offshore wind industry in Rhode Island can overcome the siting disadvantage that it had when nobody could figure out how to site wind turbines until Rhode Island did it.

It wasn’t really fair to make offshore wind compete against onshore that had a tax advantage without giving offshore a chance to catch up. So that will have big effects in Rhode Island. We’re going to see a lot of economic development out of the offshore wind projects.

How does it help Rhode Island?
The biggest one economically is going to be the wind-energy tax extensions. That in addition to other things will give the offshore wind industry more flexibility to design its wind fields in ways that impinge less on fisheries and other uses. The primary obstacle has been siting, but I think that the tax support actually will help with the siting, as the companies can look at their finances going forward and see that this frees up some room for them to be a little bit less bossy and dogmatic about their turbine layouts. So I think that’s going to hugely facilitate this industry.

At the end of the day the carbon-capture tax extension is going to be the biggest deal from a climate-change perspective. I think it’s pretty clear right now that if we want to stay within the 1.5 degree Celsius safety range we are going to need to start pulling excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and extending the credit around those technologies to move forward so they can be in a position to scale when we finally get a proper carbon price.

Ultimately, direct air capture is probably going to be one of the key components of a path to safety on climate change and the technological steps necessary to walk that path have been enormously advanced by this carbon-capture tax program.

What about carbon pricing?
That’s one of the biggest, earliest things they can do. My recommendation is that they should, as part of the mother of all executive orders, bring back the Obama-era social cost of carbon and require that all federal agencies consider it in all of their decision-making.

Then you would want to follow on with proper research and consultation and expertise to update it as soon as possible to what is now the better understood social cost of carbon.

How will the stalled offshore wind projects move forward?
I think it’s better to consider that once you got a Biden administration in place at Department of Interior. It’s not clear to me that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the secretary of interior were actually operating in good faith with respect to offshore wind. There’s a strong chance that they were deliberately stalling offshore wind development for the natural-gas industry.

Why hasn’t there been pushback within BOEM?
BOEM doesn’t exactly have an illustrious history. They had to change its name because it was so disgraced after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. And it’s long been in an unhealthy relationship with the fossil-fuel industry, so I’m not sure how much pushback that strategy would get from inside BOEM.

How do you see the Department of Energy, Department of Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency changing under the Biden administration?
They became real stooge organizations for the fossil-fuel industry in pretty disgraceful ways. So I think you’ll see those three agencies transform very dramatically. One thing that we’ve done in this piece of legislation is that we’ve given some pretty significant new programs to the Department of Energy (DOE), in particular the passage of the Clean Industrial Technology Act (CITA) so there’s a lot of new authority that the DOE has now to do very specific programs on climate. And the industrial emission reductions is going to be the strongest of all. We actually did two bills on it in the omnibus bill. We did my technology transition bill, which is kind of a sidecar to the bigger CITA bill, but it gives DOE huge authority to basically step into the industrial sector and help that technology transition to less polluting and less climate warming means of powering industry.

What can we expect from climate and renewable-energy initiatives?
There’s going to be an enormous growth in renewables. All the White House has to do is take its thumb off the scales and let renewables compete and they win. They don’t really need to be propped up much any longer. I think we’re going to see enormous investment in infrastructure in ways that support greener and more renewable energy, as soon as we get our infrastructure bill going. I’m confident that there will be a climate bill soon, and if we do our job right it can easily be bipartisan.

Will there be help for improving the electric grid and interconnection for renewable energy?
If you’ve got big solar and wind sources in fairly remote places  you’ve got to get transmission lines to them in order to make them useful. There’s a whole lot of electric-vehicle infrastructure that’s going to be necessary.  When you think of how many gas stations there are that gives you some idea of how much electric-vehicle infrastructure is needed. And then there’s the defensive infrastructure work. As we know, sea-level rise is going to continue along our coast and storms are going to be worse and there’s going to be more flood damage and we’re going to need to protect coastal infrastructure better — all of that needs to be taken on. That’s more defending climate change than it is solving it but it needs to be done and it’s going to be part of the infrastructure bill.

Do you think the damage Trump inflicted on the environment can be reversed?
Some of it can be reversed. Unfortunately, particularly with climate change, time is not our friend and there’s no way to reclaim lost time, that’s been the worst damage. Much of what the Trump stooges did was done so ham-handedly and stupidly that it ended up blowing up in court. But the battle they won was what they stalled for time even if they didn’t prevail in their crooked rule-making.

Do you think Biden will need to sign a giant executive order or a flood of them?
The first thing he needs to do is the mother of all executive orders and that basically clears the decks for his administration to go forward with as little impediment from lingering Trump officials and policies as possible.

The big stuff is complicated and it’s going to take some time to work through to get right and I think there’s a second tranche of executive orders that comes once you’ve had a chance to confer with Congress, once you had a chance to get your people in place, once you’ve had a chance to do your research work. And then you do the big executive orders that can help.

And I think the third tranche is that you have to be prepared to support your legislative work with executive orders so that you’re working in tandem, and the Republicans don’t feel that they can blockade us in the Senate and filibuster everything that they can. So you’ve got to take on a very aggressive executive order posture that with any luck you don’t have to impose because you’ve gotten a better climate bill done. But if you’re not showing the stick of what you’re prepared to do by executive order then I don’t think you’ll be as effective in pushing a real bipartisan solution.

How do you see Raimondo managing the Commerce Department, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and provides substantial environmental funding to Rhode Island?
Let’s just start by saying I don’t think this was an easy call for her to make. The COVID-19 pandemic is not solved in Rhode Island and for the captain to leave the ship in this circumstance is not an easy thing. And I think she made the decision in part because she sees so much opportunity on the oceans front and she’s so familiar with ocean concerns because of what Rhode Island knows from the Coastal Resources Management Council, from the fishing community, about the extraordinary damage and perils of what’s going on in the oceans thanks to climate change.

She has lived the ocean problem and so I’m going to insist on calling her the Secretaries of Oceans and Commerce because I think that is the great task that she has before her that is so significant that it justifies leaving her position as governor, and I totally support that she did this.

How would you rate Raimondo’s record on the environment and the climate crisis?
I think she’s been pretty good. She just signed up with Connecticut and Massachusetts to expand the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to transportation, which is a very big deal and not easily done. She has been very helpful at moving the offshore wind industry forward, and I think when you are dealing with a global issue like climate change you’ve got to be somewhat realistic about what the governor of the smallest state in the union can do. This is an issue Congress needs to address and so I don’t fault Gov. Raimondo on environmental grounds and I think she’ll be — let’s put it this way — she’s got the chance to be an enormously consequential figure on oceans, which has been a stepchild for too long.

Do you see the Green New Deal or elements of the Green New Deal advancing under that name or advancing in parts?
Almost certainly not under that name. It’s become a political football. Too many of the close races and lost seats suffered from the attacks on socialism, defund the police, and the Green New Deal. We allowed the term to get basically co-opted and used against us by the other side. But if you look behind the term, pretty much all the policies that the Green New Deal embodies are popular ones and I would expect that the policies will be priorities and a great deal of them will actually be achieved.

We just got outsmarted and outplayed with the nomenclature, but that doesn’t mean that the policies are wrong and it doesn’t mean that the policies shouldn’t be pursued. They are popular, they are right, and they will grow the economy, and they will protect us.

Do you think the Sunrise Movement and activist groups have been helpful or detrimental? How should they go forward?
It’s important for groups to hold Congress’s feet to the fire to get something done. But it’s also important to recognize the difference between the Republican Party allowing itself to become the political wing of the fossil-fuel industry and do its bidding entirely versus Democrats who have policy disagreements about the best way to go forward on climate.

At the end of the day I think the real measure of our success or failure on climate change isn’t what the nomenclature of a bill is, it’s whether we hit the 1.5-degree safety level. That’s nature’s test of success or failure. And if we get a Green New Deal passed and fail that test, we have failed. And if we don’t get a Green New Deal passed but we pass that test then we’ve succeeded. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball here.

How will the omnibus bill addresses environmental justice? And how will the issue will be addressed under the Biden administration?
Let’s be clear. All climate wins are environmental-justice wins because climate catastrophe will fall with particular force on the poor and disenfranchised. That said, we were able to get the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) included in the omnibus. DERA provides grants to replace older, dirtier, diesel engines with new, cleaner ones. This was a good step forward for environmental justice communities, as older diesel engines are major sources of particulate pollution.


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