Weekly Analysis

Weekly Analysis

Senate Votes Highlight GOP Push For Natural Gas As Climate Option

February 8, 2021

The Senate’s recent debate of a fiscal year 2021 budget resolution offered Republicans a platform to press their support for natural gas as an option to address climate change, including some measures that earned limited Democratic backing.

The chamber’s consideration last week of the resolution -- which is primarily aimed at facilitating Democrats’ sweeping covid relief legislation -- included a marathon session that stretched early into the morning Feb. 5 in which Republicans secured votes on a handful of amendments to ensure the continued use of natural gas as the nation moves toward reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of the gas-related amendments, such as one that would bar EPA regulations banning fracking, were approved with strong bipartisan support, though later Democrats stripped several high-profile energy measures from the resolution including the bar on future EPA fracking prohibitions.

Yet the proposals -- including a plan for expanded natural gas use in power generation and as a transportation fuel amid the Biden administration’s push toward electrification -- offer an early look at Republican messaging on the issue ahead of partisan battles as Democrats and the White House are likely to push climate policy proposals as part of an infrastructure package expected this spring.

For years, natural gas had been touted as a “bridge” for transitioning the United States away from coal as a lower-carbon alternative. But climate policy advocates and others have recently argued that climate change represents an increasingly urgent problem, requiring additional carbon reduction or capture measures for natural gas and eventually bypassing all fossil fuels altogether.

Of the dozens of amendments offered by Senate Republicans, six involved energy and climate issues, with five of those addressing in some way continued use of natural gas, underscoring the importance that limiting effects on the fuel will play in upcoming congressional climate debates.

Most notably, amendments promoting fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline and prohibiting a carbon tax were direct attacks on the Biden administration’s climate agenda.

Other less-noticed proposals for expanding natural gas use as a GHG-reduction tactic and prohibiting Biden actions that would force U.S. reliance on energy from foreign countries with “weaker” environmental standards, offer a more nuanced look at the GOP’s climate messaging.

For instance, an amendment offered by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would prohibit “actions by the executive branch that would make the United States more reliant on countries with weaker environmental or labor standards for oil, gas, or hardrock mineral production.” It was approved by voice vote with Democratic support.

Also, an amendment by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) would have expanded “natural gas as a vital fuel source to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide reliable and affordable heat, electricity, and transportation fuel for consumers.” The measure was ruled “out of order” after Republicans failed to attract the requisite 10 Democrats needed to overrule that procedural decision.

Only Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) voted with Republicans on that procedural vote, though Sullivan’s amendment likely frames a debate expected to re-emerge later this year.

Fracking Rules

Another amendment from Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) -- barring EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality from issuing rules banning fracking -- passed on a bipartisan 57-43 vote. However, the amendment was later stripped from the broader resolution by a substitute amendment from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Schumer’s measure also stripped an amendment from Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) backing the Keystone project, even though that measure was previously attached to the bill with backing from Sens. Manchin and Jon Tester (D-MT).

However, Republicans were unable to advance another measure from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) that would have countered the Biden administration’s pause of oil and gas leasing on federal lands. While all GOP senators supported the amendment, it failed after failing to attract any Democratic support.

The Senate debate comes as a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee is preparing for a Feb. 9 hearing intended to jump-start the climate policy debate under the Biden administration.

Committee Democrats cite recent executive orders (EOs) by President Joe Biden and his commitment for a net-zero power sector by 2035 as a starting point for broader climate policy proposals.

“The transition to a clean energy economy outlined by the suite of EOs is designed to put the United States back on track to meet its emissions reduction goals while also creating millions of jobs for Americans,” says committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) in a memo to staff preparing for the climate change subcommittee hearing.

At the same time, environmentalists are arguing against relying on gas as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired power generation, warning that investments in gas infrastructure could end up as “stranded assets” costing consumers huge sums as states and federal policymakers adopt net-zero emission policies.

“Achieving economy-wide climate goals will require massive transformation across all sectors,” says a new report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) presented at a Feb. 4 meeting of state utility regulators.

“While much focus has been given to reductions needed in the electric and transportation sectors, deep reductions will also be required in GHG emissions attributable to gas utilities,” the EDF report says in framing what’s at stake for the gas industry as the Biden administration and Congress begin developing broader climate policies.

That debate is likely to being in earnest as Democrats turn their attention to an anticipated infrastructure proposal following passage of their covid-relief package.

Biden said he “can hardly wait” to sit down with congressional Democrats to develop an infrastructure and clean-energy plan. “This is the next big piece,” he said before a Feb. 5 meeting with Democrats on the covid plan.

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