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Pallone’s career moment on climate change

March 9, 2021
In The News

Anyone who believes in science knows by now that America has been a global villain when it comes to climate change, even before President Trump arrived and turned up the heat.

Now, we can exhale a bit, because Democrats are making their first serious push in more than a decade to enact legislation that meets the moment. And driving that effort in the House is our own Rep. Frank Pallone, the bill’s chief author, and the most powerful member of New Jersey’s delegation.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘catastrophic’ because if you tell people the world is going to end, they turn off, they say this guy is crazy,” Pallone says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

Pallone is green to the bone, but he’s not among those who have signed on to the Green New Deal. Because he’s also a practical politician who counts votes.

“I admire the supporters of the Green New Deal, and I’d like to move as quickly as possible,” he says. “But ultimately, the question is how we get the votes. When I put this together, the effort was to find consensus among Democrats and get at least some Republican support.”

You might think, then, that Pallone has drafted a weak bill that wouldn’t force fundamental change. But take a look at the details.

Pallone’s bill would squeeze every drop of carbon from our electricity grid by 2035 – just 14 years from now. Coal and gas would be replaced by wind, solar, nuclear and hydro power, by law. By 2050, the entire economy would become carbon-free.

The bill establishes a “climate bank” stuffed with $100 billion to help finance everything from charging stations for electric cars to green farming projects. It has new incentives to bring solar power to low-income neighborhoods. Democrats have had years to think this through, and a quick summary of the bill runs 32 pages.

What you will not find in this bill is a tax on carbon emissions. Many economists and energy wonks say that would be the best solution of all because it would unleash the power of the market to find the most efficient ways to cut back.

But Pallone is a politician. And he was around in 2010 when the last major climate bill crashed and burned. It established a cap-and-trade program, forcing polluters to buy credits for each ton of carbon they emit, which would also drive up the cost of fossil fuels to spark change. It was a close cousin to a tax hike.

This time around, Democrats are relying on regulation instead. The big one is a requirement that utilities buy more and more of their energy from green sources, until it reaches 100 percent by 2035. That will still cost you – Bill Gates estimates in his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” that a green electricity grid will drive up prices by 15 percent.

But it’s not a tax, and that could ease its path through Congress.

“The problem with the carbon tax is we tried it unsuccessfully in 1993-94 and again in 2010,” Pallone says. “I think it’s time to try something new. I’m not saying anything is ruled out. We want to hear from everyone and see what the consensus is.”

That’s vintage Pallone. If you’re looking for poetry, call Sen. Cory Booker, who drafted an aggressive climate bill in 2019 that required a green electricity grid by 2030, five years ahead of Pallone’s schedule. But Booker’s bill went nowhere, while Pallone’s has a good shot at being enacted.

The big challenge will be in the Senate, where the 2010 cap-and-trade bill died of neglect. And while Pallone serves in the House, he’s paying close attention to his prospects at the other end of the Capitol.

“I like Joe Manchin,” Pallone says, referring to the centrist Democratic senator from the heart of coal country in West Virginia. “He’s trying to protect the coal industry, but I think he also realizes we need to move towards clean energy, so there are many things in the bill he’d find attractive. He’s a practical guy.”

The December stimulus bill included funding to retrain displaced coal miners, and Pallone has included funding in his bill for research on capturing carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants, the last hope for coal country.

As for Republicans, Pallone says he hopes to snag a few GOP votes, but recognizes the limits. Local Republican leaders in his district are all for it, he says, but in Washington it is an impossible sell. “Most of them won’t admit there’s a human factor in greenhouse gases,” he says. “That’s the problem.”

So, this, too, could wind up as a partisan standoff that will force Democrats to use a special procedure known as reconciliation, a path around the filibuster that would allow the bill to pass on party lines. It’s the same process Republicans used in 2017 to pass President Trump’s tax cuts and will be used in the Senate soon to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package.

“Some of it can be done through reconciliation,” Pallone says. “I don’t rule anything out.”

We are in a new era when it comes to climate change. Public opinion has finally shifted, and a clear majority of Americans want Congress to act. Biden has built an all-star team of senior advisors, and if Democrats in Congress can hold together this time then the United States can regain its balance and have some credibility in pressing countries like China and India to make changes as well.

Pallone attended the United Nations’ climate conference in Madrid in 2019 with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Every country there, certainly every democracy, were all saying that the world is not going to address this unless the United States gets involved,” he said. “They were begging us. And we have to do that. The world will never move forward in an effective way unless we take a leadership role.”

We are in a new era. There is hope. In his long career, Pallone has never faced a more consequential moment. A great deal hinges on his success.