The Climate in Congress

The U.S. Capitol dome, with an image of the Earth balanced on top and a plume of "smoke" billowing from the Earth.

By Bethany A. Davis Noll
March 11, 2021

Congress has been busy at work on a COVID-19 relief package, which President Biden signed into law this afternoon. But in the midst of working on that pressing concern, Congress has taken initial steps toward a legislative response to the climate crisis.

Last week, committees in both the House and Senate introduced climate packages that pull together a range of policies designed to boost clean energy, create jobs, and promote equity. Each committee and its chairman have outlined different paths to achieve these goals. Elements of these packages are expected to be included in the upcoming infrastructure bill that Congress will turn to next.

This activity represents an opportunity for advocates and state attorneys general seeking to press for legislation that achieves clean energy and environmental goals. While some may have doubts that such legislation can pass after the failure of the 2009 Waxman-Markey effort, the fact that members in both chambers and across the ideological spectrum are proposing climate policy solutions signifies a new era for the environment and clean energy in Washington.

In the House, Energy & Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) has used a clean energy standard requiring the power sector to reach 80 percent decarbonization by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2035 as the foundation of his climate bill. To reduce emissions from the current largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation sector, the bill provides funding to accelerate the build-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and electrify shipping ports across the country. And the bill would establish a federal green bank to supercharge the deployment of existing clean energy technology.

Senate Energy & Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) has put a different set of ideas at the center of his bill, directing $8 billion in tax credits toward expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, building more electrical grid infrastructure, and developing carbon capture technology. Even at this early stage, the bill has garnered bipartisan support.

Whichever of these provisions are included in the final infrastructure package and signed into law, newly confirmed Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and EPA Administrator Michael Regan, as well as new FERC Chairman Richard Glick, will be tasked with turning the text into reality.

Meanwhile, the House has passed a major public lands bill (H.R. 803), begun considering legislation (H.R. 1328 and H.R. 1327) to increase the federal government’s and schools’ adoption of zero-emission vehicles, and introduced a bill to improve the Energy Department’s appliance efficiency program.

As the push for climate and clean energy legislation picks up steam in Congress, there are significant opportunities for state attorneys general to engage in the legislative process and champion their states’ and constituents’ interests. They did so successfully during the previous Congress, for example by adding important momentum to bipartisan efforts to address PFAS contamination. State AG involvement on Capitol Hill has made a lasting impact, and will continue to do so moving forward, as Congress turns towards addressing the nation’s climate challenges.

Bethany A. Davis Noll is an expert in administrative and environmental law and an experienced litigator. She is Executive Director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.