House Democrats on Tuesday released a sweeping proposal to address the climate crisis that calls for the U.S. to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in large part through decarbonizing the electric and transportation sectors.
The 547-page staff report from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis outlines a plan for the U.S. power sector to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, allowing an economy-wide reduction through building, transportation and industrial electrification by 2050. Notably, the report does not call for an end to natural gas fracking or even explicitly call for an end to coal-fired power, and it leaves the door open for carbon capture technology and nuclear power to play a role in a net zero-carbon grid.
Republicans on the select committee were frustrated the policy package did not go through the full committee process, making it a partisan proposal that is unlikely to move forward as is. But "there is a lot of stuff in there that could be bipartisan," a Republican staffer close to negotiations told Utility Dive.
Tuesday's staff report addresses a wide range of policies clean energy advocates say are needed to speed up the U.S. energy transition and bring the entire domestic economy to net-zero emissions.
"This is the most comprehensive plan that Congress has ever put forward," Brad Townsend, managing director for strategic initiatives at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions told Utility Dive. "We're finally starting to have a conversation about action at the scale that will be necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change."
"Policy toplines" include a call for Congress to enact a clean energy standard — requiring the U.S. to use only zero-emissions resources by 2050. The policies also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to develop a transmission strategy and remove barriers to renewable energy from the wholesale power markets.
"To fully harness the country's vast renewable energy resources onshore and offshore, Congress must direct [FERC] to develop a long-range transmission infrastructure strategy to site more interstate transmission lines in high-priority corridors," the plan reads. "Congress also should direct FERC to remove roadblocks in power markets that slow the growth of electricity generation from clean sources."
Another major focus of the report is electrification — mobilizing incentives, infrastructure and other support for the acceleration of zero-emissions vehicles, as well as electrifying building end uses.
These policies, combined with additional directives on agriculture, environmental justice, lands, oceans and wildlife, public health and more, "would eliminate more than 5,000 million metric tons of CO2 annually in 2050," according to an Energy Innovation (EI) model of the policy recommendations. Under these policies, net carbon emissions would reach zero by 2048 and be reduced 89% below 2005 levels.
EI's modeling also predicts the policies would avoid 62,000 premature deaths annually by 2050, totaling $8 trillion in monetized health and climate benefits.
'Politics as usual'
Republicans are still reviewing the contents of the report, said a Republican staffer, but have previously found common ground with Democrats in discussions on transmission infrastructure and resilience. Natural gas remains one key question — Republicans are focused on policies that could reduce emissions at home and abroad, including through maintaining the United States' position as a natural gas exporter as more countries turn to the fuel over coal for their emissions reductions needs.
"Economic growth and energy security do not have to be sacrificed in order to improve the environment. In fact, increased production of American shale natural gas helped produce the greatest emissions reduction in history," House Select Committee Republicans said in a joint statement responding to the report.
But although progressive politicians, including former Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have called for an end to natural gas fracking, the report does not push for an end to the practice.
Instead, the recommended policies would direct FERC and the Department of Energy to consider climate and environmental impacts when approving natural gas pipelines or export infrastructure. It also calls for an elimination of methane pollution, through modernizing pipelines and other gas infrastructure. Though carbon emissions are the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting global warming, methane is more potent and traps heat better than CO2, the report notes.
Carbon capture is another method described that is not supported by some environmental groups, but has traditionally been more bipartisan. Notably, the report does not recommend using the technology for coal facilities, despite coal advocates, DOE leadership and other stakeholders' assertions that the technology could keep some coal plants online in a low-carbon future.
"While there may be significant potential to export coal CCUS technology to countries like China, which has a large, young fleet of coal plants, carbon capture is most promising in the United States for existing natural gas-fired power plants and industrial facilities," the report said.
The policy outline also does not specifically call for an end to coal-fired power, but rather focuses on strategies to transition the coal workforce through job training, federal economic support and creating new jobs through infrastructure buildouts.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) expressed partial support for the labor provisions, but said more work would be needed.
Policies outlined "would address the climate crisis in a way that recognizes the importance of maintaining and expanding high-quality jobs through robust labor standards," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement.
However, "[t]here are concerns for our unions in these recommendations, including some of the tax provisions and timetables for emissions reductions and technological mandates. This language can and must be refined with additional input from working families and communities before any legislation comes to the floor," he said.
Conservative group Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) also expressed support for some of the policies outlined in the report, including the call for net-zero emissions by 2050, but further criticized Democratic leadership for not including Republicans in the conversations.
"[T]he process undertaken by Democratic leadership in putting out this report sacrificed actionable solutions for partisan politics," CRES executive director Heather Reams said in a statement. "As originally planned, a markup of this report by Republicans and Democrats would have given the American people clear insight into a collaborative, debatable approach to address climate change during politically charged and uncertain times. Our country needs clean energy solutions now, but this report reads like politics as usual."
The House Select Committee did not respond to requests for comment on why Republicans were not involved, but others acknowledged it could have been a number of reasons, including time restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's worth noting that Republicans didn't really critique, or haven't yet critiqued, the sort of fundamental assumption that underlies this report, which is that we need to take significant action urgently to address climate. And so I think that's a cause for optimism," said Townsend.