Republican ‘tree huggers’ face off against emission-slashing Democrats in congressional bills

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More young Republicans are demanding that climate-change deniers pipe down and legislators take up the fight against accelerating global warming, plastics pollution and more.

GOP legislators apparently are listening more closely and want to head off what they argue are punitive carbon-tax systems in the sweeping Green New Deal or the decades-old cap-and-trade approach that has been slow to take off. They instead want a diverse energy mix that won’t sabotage the U.S.’s march to maintain energy independence. And they want to do it, first, with trees.

One trillion, carbon-capturing trees, in fact.

Republicans are expected to advance a bill that would back President Donald Trump’s commitment to a global initiative to plant one trillion trees, announced recently in Davos in an otherwise largely criticized speech on climate change from environmentalists and foreign leaders.

Legislation being drafted by Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican of Arkansas who has a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University, would commit the U.S. to planting some 3.3 billion trees each year over the next 30 years as part of the global effort.

Democrats are advancing their own versions of energy and climate bills that may be considered a more palatable approach than the historic Green New Deal, a proposal co-led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year that has been embraced at least partly by several members of the 2020 Democratic presidential field but has found little traction in a mixed Congress.

Read: Where Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and the leading 2020 Democrats stand on climate change

This week, about 100 conservative activists, including volunteers from Citizens’ Climate lobby, visited 76 Republican congressional offices to try to sway officials away from climate science denial toward clean energy innovation as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without drastically scaling back fossil fuels.

In November, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that higher percentages of millennial Republicans believe the federal government is not doing enough on climate. Other surveys have found similar trends.

The latest Republican congressional offerings are far from the carbon tax proposals once advanced by former GOP heavyweights: a $40-per-ton carbon tax on polluters promoted by George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and James Baker, Reagan’s treasury secretary and secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. The feature of those proposals: money raised by the tax would have been returned to taxpayers in the form of dividends.

Charles Hernick, director of policy and advocacy for the center-right Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, is working with Republicans on comprehensive legislation that helps bring down the cost of renewable energy, while keeping natural gas in the mix, and promotes market-driven solutions to turning captured emissions into their own commodity, the “upside down smokestack” solution, that has been promoted by fossil fuel giants including Exxon Mobil XOM, -1.04%  .

As for the leafy GOP proposal? “It’s not enough just to plant trees and it’s not enough to not plant trees,” said Hernick, saying the efficient process of absorbing carbon from more trees is never an insignificant consideration. It is, he says, a pledge that has far-reaching, tactical and tactile advantages across region, party and age group.

Critics say the campaign is scientifically sound but it may diffuse pressure on Republicans to do more.

Paul Falkowski, head of the Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology laboratory at Rutgers University, told The Hill “it could take up probably at maximum about 20% of the excess carbon dioxide, and it’ll take a pretty long time for that to occur.”

As for the other side of the aisle, the Democrat’s recently advanced Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s Future (CLEAN) Act, a draft that has more than 600 pages, claims it can force dramatic changes in many sectors of the economy, from pushing utilities work toward 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050 (that’s 20 years later than the 2030 target in the Green New Deal) to requiring the transportation sector to reduce emissions, and not just from cars but from airliners. The proposed legislation was released by New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone and other leaders on the Energy and Commerce committee.

Separately, House Democrats released a $760 billion infrastructure plan called the “Moving Forward Framework” that in addition to plans for rebuilding the nation’s highways, airports, bridges and other critical infrastructure, includes climate-change preparedness. As Politico reported, House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat of Oregon, says the plan will be a radical departure from highway-focused transportation bills and will put clean energy and climate “resilience” at the center.

Meanwhile, the Pallone-led bill’s failure to phase out fossil fuels is drawing the ire of progressive environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, which says it not only leaves open the door for coal but could end up incentivizing the use of natural gas through a clean-energy credit trading program.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, has been under scrutiny for much of the decade over its permitting and review processes for fossil fuel infrastructure and a perceived bias against the deployment of renewable energy. Some more progressive green groups have called for a reshuffling of the commission to focus exclusively on incorporating clean energy onto the grid. The Pallone bill, however, limits its effects to the existing statutes surrounding FERC to clarify and guide the commission to a more central climate focus in its decision-making.

“We are counting on Congressional Democrats to show bold climate leadership by making clear that dirty fossil fuels including gas are not clean or a part of our transition to 100% clean, renewable energy,” Liz Perera, climate policy director of another high-profile environmental group, the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

The Pallone bill includes stringent vehicle emissions requirements, stronger energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances and a “Buy Clean” program requiring federal purchases of construction materials meet greenhouse gas requirements. The bill also calls for more funding for existing programs.

The most significant new idea comes with the creation of a first-time National Climate Bank to spur investment in clean energy technologies. It would be allotted $10 billion in its first fiscal year and $5 billion annually after that, with financing directed to local zero-emissions vehicle fleets, grid modernization, renewables and communities impacted by climate change.

“Chairman Pallone’s climate bill is heavy on details, but still lacks backbone,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The world’s scientists agree we need bold action and real cuts in greenhouse gases by 2030, and the few deadlines in this legislation fall woefully short.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to act this year on climate “with everyone at the table,” an effort that is also being informed by the recommendations of a special climate committee being led by Florida Democratic Representative Kathy Castor by the end of March.

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Any eventual package would likely face resistance in the Republican-held Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring a number of climate-focused bills to the floor, including the sweeping Green New Deal introduced last year.

In addition to the tree planting, according to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Republican of California, and Rep. Garret Graves, the Louisiana Republican, a new set of policies would expand an existing tax credit to encourage carbon capture and storage, fund research and development for “clean energy” technology and curb plastic pollution, they told Axios.