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June 12, 2019

Bipartisanship should prevail in the electrification of the transportation sector

By Cherie Wilson

Addressing climate change has become a leading topic of bipartisan discussion within the 116th Congress, with a growing number of Republicans publicly emphasizing innovation and global technological leadership. Both are central factors in the overarching dialogue around vehicle electrification, which should resonate with policy makers from both sides of the aisle. An electrification strategy to help address climate change is particularly relevant given that the domestic transportation sector is now the leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, surpassing the electric power industry, which has experienced falling carbon intensity due to market dynamics coupled with modest clean energy policies.

The transportation sector’s GHG emissions are largely attributable to petroleum-based fuels, including motor gasoline, but a shift towards electrification coupled with low carbon fuels could reduce GHG emissions by more than 80 percent and petroleum use almost entirely, according to the US Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office. While GHG reductions will ultimately vary depending upon a range of factors, the electrification of the transportation sector coupled with the simultaneous greening of the grid could unlock a suite of policy options that should gain bipartisan support.

Bipartisanship is an essential ingredient for any successful legislative solution to advance in this Congress, or any future Congress. For years, Democrats have carried the climate mantle while numerous Republicans questioned climate science—causing bipartisan Congressional thought leadership on the topic to languish. While efforts have emerged in recent years to bridge Democratic and Republican thinking on the topic, such as the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, the recent midterm elections resulted in significant losses to more moderate Republicans in the House of Representatives—including the first Republican to introduce substantive market-based, climate change legislation in a decade, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL 26), who continues to be a vocal advocate for climate action. A similar shake-up occurred for moderate Democrats during President Barack Obama’s first midterm election, many of whom supported the House-passed cap-and-trade bill, which served as a central campaign issue in swing districts. This led to a Republican controlled House and tighter margins in the Senate, leaving little to no room for legislative action on climate and causing the White House to pivot towards regulatory action. Now, as the pendulum swings back to Democratic control in the House, the climate change debate is taking on a new life.

A small but growing group of Congressional Republicans in the Senate and House are speaking up about the need for domestic leadership on climate change in the face of rising international urgency and increased domestic pressure from citizen and environmental groups, as well as the broader investor community. Of note, the chair of the Senate Energy Committee, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has warned that climate change is directly impacting her home state, has initiated the first series of Energy Committee hearings since 2012 focused exclusively on addressing climate change, although the Committee has tackled related issues that have implications for climate action over the years.  She also co-authored an op-ed with Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV), declaring their bipartisan commitment to identifying “pragmatic policies” to address climate change through leadership on clean energy deployment, including storage, advanced nuclear, and carbon capture—all efforts to accelerate a “robust innovation ecosystem.” In a similar vein, the day before the Senate’s controversial vote on the Green New Deal resolution, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy, called for a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” to double federal funding for energy research and accelerate “breakthroughs” in advanced nuclear reactors, natural gas, carbon capture, battery storage, electric vehicles, green buildings, solar, and fusion technology. His recent proposal is very similar to a plan he released a decade ago. In taking an important step to support policy that aligns with his plan, Senators Alexander and Susan Collins (R-ME) joined Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Gary Peters (D-MI) to introduce bipartisan legislation in April to expand the electric vehicle (EV) and hydrogen fuel cell tax credits, an essential policy driver for consumer adoption of EVs. Collins and Alexander’s policy endorsement stands in stark contrast to Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), who—although he released an op-ed acknowledging that climate change is real and that the United States has a responsibility to act—then re-introduced legislation shortly thereafter to gut the federal EV tax credit for the burgeoning industry. 

In the House, a similar dialogue is emerging. For example, Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR 02), former Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI 06), and Ranking Member of the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee John Shimkus (R-IL 15) released an op-ed acknowledging climate change is real and stating their commitment to a solutions-oriented discussion built on innovation, conservation, and adaptation. They point to “bipartisan solutions” to remove barriers to energy storage and commercial batteries that will promote increased use of renewables and improve the resiliency of the electric grid as well as encourage business investment in new clean energy technologies. Each of these ideas could help facilitate a more coherent vehicle electrification policy. Meanwhile, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL 01), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, released his alternative to the Green New Deal, the Green Real Deal, with a focus on electric grid modernization, renewables deployment, clean energy technologies, and innovation. Additionally, vocal climate supporters, such as Reps. Francis Rooney (R-FL 19) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA 01), have joined Democrats in supporting carbon pricing legislation, in addition to calling for technology innovation and deployment. Rep. Fitzpatrick has even joined with Democrats to advance legislation rebuking President Donald Trump’s call to leave the Paris climate agreement.

Lastly, at least one of the administration’s appointees, current Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Neil Chatterjee, who previously worked for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has publicly affirmed he believes climate change is real and that the government has a responsibility to act. In recent days, even Sen. McConnell has made similar acknowledgments. As the various statements and op-eds from Republicans highlight, there appears to be tacit agreement that Congress should prioritize investment in clean energy and innovative technologies to help reduce domestic carbon emissions. While bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the Senate to shore-up the EV tax credit, for example, no House Republicans have yet to support a modification of the EV tax credit this Congress. As such, a real opportunity exists for key Republicans to fill a leadership void in the climate debate, inclusive of asserting US leadership on the related future of vehicle electrification policy.

While setting clear emissions targets and goals coupled with a market price on carbon would be the most efficient means to address GHGs, moderates, such as former Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who recently spoke at the Columbia University Energy Conference, remind us that we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to developing bipartisan policy solutions. As history has proven, comprehensive climate proposals take a significant amount of time, require diverse coalitions, and tend to create angst among affected stakeholder groups—oftentimes with political repercussions. However, if policymakers can work together in a bipartisan fashion to advance a suite of legislative policy options that prioritize clean energy investment and innovation as a first step, the United States will be better equipped to tackle the climate challenge moving forward.  

Various think tanks and non-governmental organizations, for example, are weighing in with policy proposals that can attract bipartisan support, such as those policies outlined in the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions’ (C2ES) Policy Brief, “Near-Term Actions to Address Climate Change.” C2ES comprehensively outlines a diverse range of policy options that will help enable electrification of the transportation sector along with the decarbonization of the grid, through (1) modernizing transportation and electric grid infrastructure; and (2) supporting advanced energy and transportation solutions, like an expanded EV tax credit. It appeared that bipartisan discussions were emerging this Congress to develop an infrastructure package, reauthorize the highway bill, and renew expired tax extenders, any of which could potentially provide a legislative vehicle or two to advance some these policy priorities. However, it remains unclear what will be achieved under a divided Congress. 

Hopefully, Republicans and Democrats can put their partisan differences behind them and leverage these types of policy solutions, among others, to help reassert the United States’ climate and technological leadership capabilities as we compete globally to lead on vehicle electrification. In their absence, industry will continue to invest in new products and technologies, but, without direction from the public sector, the speed and timing of these investments will neither be enough to address climate change adequately nor outpace international competition.

Cherie Wilson is a Women Leaders in Energy fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and a director of federal affairs for General Motors (GM). You can follow her on Twitter @cherie524

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Image: United States Capitol Building on the National Mall in Washington, DC (photo by Flickr/Jeffrey Zeldman).