Ever since Republicans took the majority in the U.S. House in 2010, there has been a familiar refrain that the Democratic Party wants to act on rapidly decarbonizing electricity to address the climate crisis, but has been prevented from doing so by the Republicans and their ties to the fossil fuel industries.
There is only one problem with this analysis: it is not entirely true.
It is true that the Republican Party at the federal level has been utterly resistant to any meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and with a few notable exceptions has been largely hostile to renewable energy. But what is not necessarily true is that the leadership of the Democratic Party has the political will to address this crisis, or to move boldly on expanding the deployment of renewables.
The most blistering example of the complete irresponsibility of Democratic Party leaders on this issue is the appointment of Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) to ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has been described by 350.org as “completely at odds with any plan for real climate action”.
In fact, Manchin is the only Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who failed to sign on to a letter calling on FERC appointee and former professional fossil fuel advocate Bernard McNamee to recuse himself from any rule makings where one resource would be pitted against another.
This should not be surprising, as Joe Manchin had long retained financial ties to a coal brokerage that he helped run before being elected to the U.S. Senate. According to Open Secrets he is also the fourth-largest recipient of coal mining donations in the U.S. Senate to date, and in a recent television commercial fired a gun at a climate bill.
In short, that Democratic leaders have allowed this to happen shows a shocking disregard for energy issues and the well-being of future generations.
Energy and climate not a top priority for Democrats
While as the leader of senate Democrats Chuck Schumer (D-New York) oversaw this appointment, it is a sign of a deep lack of commitment on these issues from leading Democrats overall. There were four other Senators – including Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) who outranked Manchin on Energy and Natural Resources, but all were either lured away by other committee chair appointments or insisted on maintaining their positions as chairs of other committees.
Like Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), who led Democrats on the committee before current ranking member Senator Maria Cantwell, Manchin is likely to remain in this position for long time, and in the future could effectively act as a brake on any progressive energy and climate legislation. This means that even if Democrats regain the Senate or the Presidency in 2020, you can kiss any Green New Deal goodbye, as well as other, less ambitious efforts to get progressive legislation for renewable energy.
Furthermore, Energy and Natural Resources Committee is the first stop for any new FERC appointees, which means that even if Democrats regain control of the presidency, a more progressive FERC could also be stalled.
The real action is at the state level
While there will be a lot of posturing, particularly by the Left-wing incoming members of Congress around Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal proposal, proponents of a faster transition to clean energy should not look to the U.S. Congress for any meaningful action for the foreseeable future. This is true even if another “blue wave” sweeps the Senate or presidency in 2020.
While the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar and Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind have been important policies, to date much of the real action to accelerate the transition to renewable energy has been at the state level, including through renewable energy and clean energy mandates. And here we have real momentum, with California and Hawaii mandating a move to 100% clean and/or renewable energy, and five incoming governors elected on November 6 all pledging to put their states on a timeline to 100%.
Given both Republican control of the Senate and an utter lack of leadership by the Democratic Party on energy and climate issues at the federal level, solar and renewable energy advocates should continue to focus on the critical arena of state-level policy.
We should expect nothing ambitious from the federal government any time soon. Or from the leadership of the Democratic Party, for that matter.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.