In this week's episode—the first in our ongoing “Big Decisions” spin-off series—guest host and RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell talks with Amy Harder, an energy and climate change reporter at Axios. Harder previews the environmental policy discussions that could animate decisionmakers next year, whether Democrats win the presidency and majorities in both chambers of Congress, or President Trump prevails again. Regardless of who gains the majority in this year’s presidential election, Harder sees potential for bipartisan compromise on limiting hydrofluorocarbons or supporting carbon capture technologies, and she predicts that confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could impact the federal government's authority to implement environmental regulations.
Stay tuned for more episodes in our month-long spin-off series, “Big Decisions: The Future of US Environmental and Energy Policy.” Every Tuesday in October, RFF President Richard G. Newell and RFF Board of Directors Chair Sue Tierney will share guest-hosting duties and chat with leading decisionmakers, analysts, researchers, and reporters about the big decisions that will impact US environmental and energy policy in the years to come.
Listen to the Podcast
- Waning political support for market-based climate policy: “History repeats itself, or at least rhymes with itself. After the 2008 economic crash … the problem that happened [with former President Obama’s environmental efforts] is that he put a huge down payment on clean energy, but he didn't follow it up with a market response. And most experts say that there needs to be some market signal. So far, I still do not see the political support for a market-based climate policy—even less so, now, with the entire world in a recession.” (8:45)
- Polarized politics shapes environmental policy: “Climate change has become so polarized over the last decade that policies that are really intricately tied with climate change often run into political headwinds so much more than tangential issues like conservation and public lands, which was at the heart of the Great American Outdoors Act. … You still see Congress coming together to do big things in that respect.” (9:55)
- Environmental lawsuits would be curbed by a more conservative Supreme Court: “With the continued tilt to the Right by the Supreme Court, one big concern I would have if I were a Democrat or environmental leader is that there would be three remaining liberal justices, and you need four to agree to take up a case. There could be a lot of cases that are filed by environmental groups that might not even see the light of day at the high court, if Trump succeeds in confirming a conservative justice.” (19:35)
The Full Transcript
Richard G. Newell: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your guest host, Richard Newell.
This episode is the first in our month long spinoff series called “Big Decisions: The Future of US Environmental and Energy Policy.” Regular hosts Daniel Raimi and Kristin Hayes are taking a well-earned month off. So we'll broadcast this special series in our same Resources Radio time slot every Tuesday in October, and we'll return to Daniel and Kristen in November. For this Big Decisions series, I have the pleasure of sharing guest hosting duties with Sue Tierney, the chair of RFF's Board of Directors, and a leading expert in energy, economics, regulation, and policy. Sue and I will have conversations with leading decisionmakers on both sides of the aisle, top analysts, scholars, and reporters to discuss the big decisions that will likely affect US environmental and energy policy in the years to come. Stay with us.
My guest today is Amy Harder, a reporter at Axios who covers energy, the environment, and climate change issues. Amy writes the weekly Harder Line column. Previously Amy covered similar issues for the Wall Street Journal and the National Journal, and she was the Inaugural Journalism Fellow for the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute in 2018.
I'm really happy to have Amy on the podcast today. It's the second time she's joined us in this venue and she's certainly been involved in other RFF events and is a great friend to RFF generally. Amy, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
Amy Harder: Hello. Thank you for having me on.
Richard G. Newell: So we want to begin this Big Decisions series by looking specifically at the big federal legislative decisions we'll likely to see in the 117th Congress. In other parts of the series, we'll look more specifically at regulatory decisions.
But before we get into all that, let's start with a question about you, Amy. You recently moved to Seattle, right around the time we all started quarantine, and you're continuing to report for Axios. How do you think your move from Washington, DC to Seattle has affected your approach to reporting on national issues, or may it affect your approach in the future?
Amy Harder: Yeah, certainly I think it will more in the future. The decision to move was made before the pandemic. I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest, so that was part of the reason.
But the other reason was I really want to do more coverage of how federal policy on energy and climate change affects real people and real companies out in the world. So, that plan has been put on pause somewhat with the pandemic keeping us all at home more than we would have been otherwise. But nonetheless, it's something that I would like to do more of considering I spent 12 years in DC, and I really know Congress and the lawmakers there. And of course, I'll definitely continue covering that, but I want to supplement it with talking to companies. For example, there's a big trucking company based in Bellevue, Washington—not far from me—and there's a huge push to electrify big trucks.
And so that's the type of thing that I would like to do in the coming years. But recently Axios hosted an event where, without my involvement at all, we happened to book Governor Inslee of Washington and Amazon's top sustainability official. So they're both Washington-based people. And I saw that as a confirmation that the debate on climate change is going so much broader than just Washington, DC. Now you can't ever have this debate without the federal government, but the debate is getting broader and there are more players, and that's what I hope to do in the coming months and years.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, that's really interesting with so much activity at the state level—particularly, I would say on the West coast—and also the important role of the technology sector in driving change in the energy system. We look forward to hearing your reporting on those issues.
Now let's take a look at different potential outcomes regarding which party controls the White House and the Senate for the next few years and the big environmental and energy policy decisions that lawmakers will confront. Let me start by mentioning some of the most recent forecasts from Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com, and then we'll look at three different scenarios for control at the federal level. I'm personally drawn to the FiveThirtyEight source because it looks not only at polling numbers but also combines that information with data on fundamentals like economic data, demographic data, the design of the electoral college, and likely voter turnout.
So right now, FiveThirtyEight forecasts suggest that the most likely electoral outcome is where Democrats get control of both the White House and the Senate , in addition to maintaining control of the House of Representatives. FiveThirtyEight's recent modeling has been saying that there's about a 77 or 78 percent chance of former Vice President Biden winning the presidency and about a 61 or 62 percent chance of Democrats winning control of the Senate. Reality could of course turn out really differently from that forecast, of course, but let's first discuss the implications of that scenario.
So Amy, given where we are with the coronavirus, a national reckoning on race relations, and so much else on the list for the first 100 days of a Biden administration, what do you think will be prioritized in energy and environmental policy? If there's also Democratic control of the Senate and House, which of these will become priorities for translating into legislative action?
Amy Harder: Well, if you'd asked that question to me six or seven months ago, I think I would have been a lot more confident that climate change would be clearly a top issue for a Democratic sweep after these elections, if that's indeed what occurs. I think over the last six months, of course, we've seen the pandemic overwhelm the entire world. And in addition to that, of course, this systemic racism that is really coming to the forefront. And so I think climate change has inevitably dropped a little bit in the congressional priority.
But that being said, over the last 10 years, there's really been a much greater awareness of this issue around the country and with the public. And so I think even though there are these other really pressing issues, I do still think Democrats in Congress and a potential President Biden would find ways to weave in and integrate a discussion about climate change and environmental justice with anything that they do on these other issues.
Now, congressional priorities are a really important issue. I think some people may remember the early days of the Obama administration, and Obama campaigned a lot on climate change, but he also campaigned a lot on healthcare reform. And of course, he pursued healthcare reform before climate policy, and he got the healthcare bill through in a very acrimonious way, and he just couldn't get it over the finish line when it came to climate policy. And so, there is something to be said that if you're second, you may not have enough political capital left.
And I do still think that there's the possibility of that happening even though Senate Democrats and House Democrats and Biden have all said they really prioritize climate change. When the rubber hits the road, I think there'll be these other ideas and topics that really take precedent. So I think it's an open question more so than it was seven or eight months ago.
Richard G. Newell: So are you saying that if there's substantial legislative action around energy and climate, it might be part of a package that's focused on other priority issues like COVID response?
Amy Harder: Yes, exactly. I think in the debate of energy and climate change, we've tended to be a little bit too binary. It's either a cap-and-trade policy or the Green New Deal or a carbon tax or it's nothing. And I don't think a carbon tax or cap-and-trade is likely anytime soon, and we can talk about that later, but I still think there's ways to do climate policy in a bigger way than certainly what's happened over the last four years.
Columbia University's think tank on energy recently released a big report on energy innovation and how the federal government can step up its efforts in that regard. And there's a lot of climate activists who will turn their nose up at just energy R&D. But nonetheless, it could make a substantial difference.
And so I think you'll see that type of thing in any COVID economic response. Of course, we saw that also again, going back in time because history repeats itself or at least rhymes with itself, we saw that after the 2008 economic crash, that's what Obama did. But the problem that happened there is he put a huge down payment on clean energy, but he didn't follow it up with a market response. And most experts say that there needs to be some market signal. And so far, I still do not see the political support for a market-based climate policy, even less so now with the entire world in a recession.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, really interesting. So one other quite conceivable situation in 2021 is a split outcome, where Biden is in the White House and Republicans continue to control the Senate, perhaps with a slimmer majority. When an outcome ends up being so close like that, some might expect a complete logjam. At the same time, we've seen, in some cases, both parties coming together to support legislation. An obvious recent example is the Great American Outdoors Act. Amy, I thought you made a particularly interesting point in Axios about why legislation like that can make progress while other energy and climate legislation often stalls. Can you explain why that happens and what the implications might be for a split outcome like this?
Amy Harder: Certainly. Yeah. So climate change, as a concrete issue, has become so polarized over the last decade, that policies that are really intricately tied with climate change often run into political headwinds so much more than tangential issues like conservation and public lands, which is what was at the heart of the Great American Outdoors Act. And so, you still see Congress coming together to do big things in that respect.
I would make two other points on this, with two other examples. One: going back to 2015, which is five years ago, but still in this modern day era of constant gridlock, Congress came together to do what I call a grand bargain of pairing a policy that lifted the 40 year old ban on oil exports with extending tax incentives for wind and solar power. And experts say that really made a big difference to climate change and clean energy because it provided an extra boost to wind and solar, but it also really satisfied the oil industry in a way that didn't really make a huge difference in terms of production, although having that additional market certainly is a plus for more drilling. But that was an instance where both sides got something they wanted and they didn't conflict with the other one.
If there is any climate policy done in Washington, it needs to be done that way. And I think you need to compromise in Washington. I think that's still something that is a political dirty word—compromise, middle ground. But I think when the rubber is hitting the road and you're in the hallways of Congress, ultimately that's what occurs.
Now, looking forward, one area that I could see potential bipartisan compromise under, either another President Trump term or a President Biden, would be agreement on hydrofluorocarbons [HFCs] and refrigerants, which are potent greenhouse gases that are contained in appliances like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning [HVACs] and things like that. I could see a position on that where the Senate and House pass a bill supporting policies to encourage this transition to these cleaner types of refrigerants.
And then there's actually a global treaty that's parallel to the Paris Climate Agreement, but is a separate one, the Montreal Protocol. An amendment to that policy, I could actually see a Senate supporting that under either president. And so even though that is about climate change, the industry that is affected by it is completely in support of it. And so that's another really important component to this. Although you can love or hate industry, at the end of the day, they're key players.
And so I would list those three areas, the HFCs and the oil exports and tax incentives, and then the Great Outdoors Act as ways climate and energy policy can move forward, even if it isn't the big sweeping policies that we think of.
And just really quickly, right now there's a pending bill that Senator Murkowski and others have pushed on energy innovation. Again, it's the smaller ball policies that won't satisfy the loudest climate activists, but I still think that could have potential, maybe not this year with everybody so politically focused on the election, but perhaps next year.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah. I'm glad you mentioned the American Energy Innovation Act. I was going to ask you about that. And we've been doing a series of events and are doing some deep analysis of the impacts of support for different advanced energy technologies that are included in that act, like advanced nuclear, advanced geothermal, grid scale storage, carbon capture and storage, direct air capture. So that particular act does seem to have some bipartisan momentum.
So Amy, there's of course a third scenario to consider, which is the status quo, where President Trump secures a second term, Republicans continue to hold a Senate majority and Democrats keep the House. So in that case, a number of particularly interesting changes could take place in committee leadership on the Republican side.
For example, let's take the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. Senator Murkowski will step down and Senator Barrasso is next in line to take the helm. In doing so, Senator Barrasso would give up being chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works [EPW]. What are the implications of that, Amy, for energy and environmental policy in the 117th Congress?
Amy Harder: Yeah. I was looking over the members of these different committees and it really struck me that all the Republicans in line to be leading these committees or to have senior positions in these committees are really quite conservative. And to me, it just reflects the fact that Republicans are often getting more conservative and Democrats, in some cases, are getting more liberal. And so that to me is not a recipe for bipartisanship because the lawmakers are further apart on most issues.
So Senator Barrasso of course is a quite conservative Republican. He represents Wyoming, which is the biggest coal-producing state in the country. And so he'll be very defensive of that energy resource. Of course, he has supported carbon capture technologies, which in theory enables us to capture CO₂ emissions from coal plants and other emitting facilities.
It could also therefore, in theory, continue the existence of coal as an electricity source, which is why Senator Barrasso is supporting it. But Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island and a climate hawk, he also supports it. Because we're so dependent upon oil, natural gas and coal, many experts say that we'll need some carbon capture technology. And so, I could see areas of bipartisan support in that respect.
Senator Barrasso also, as chairman of the Environment Committee, recently came out in support of a deal on the HFC refrigerant policy I mentioned a couple of minutes ago. And so, he had some concerns about earlier measures that potentially gave states the ability to go even more aggressive than the federal government. So again, that reflects his conservative positions on not allowing states to have even bigger climate policies.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah. Any other noteworthy changes in committee leadership, either in the House or the Senate that you see potentially affecting energy environmental legislation, again, in this scenario with continued control of Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House?
Amy Harder: Yeah, well, on this Senate EPW committee, Shelley Moore Capito is next in line to be potentially the chair of that committee. Now it depends on her other committee assignments and how that shuffles out. She hails from another big coal producing state, West Virginia. And again, I think even though coal as a resource has significantly dropped off over the last 10 years, you still see a lot of really potent political support for it.
And so that's what I would anticipate she to defend in the environment committee. In the House, I think you'll continue to see more of the same types of policies. I think you have Speaker Pelosi, although she generally supports the idea of the Green New Deal, she hasn't actually endorsed it. And so I'll anticipate continuing to see the House, if it's controlled by Democrats, trying to give good rhetoric to big climate policy, but actually trying to pursue smaller ball issues at the same time.
Richard G. Newell: Interesting. Another big issue at the moment is the implication of Judge Amy Coney Barrett nomination to the Supreme Court and the implications for action on climate change with a more conservative Supreme Court in place.
When President Obama couldn't get congressional action on climate and energy, he fell back on regulatory authorities at the executive level. The Supreme Court then put a stay on President Obama's Clean Power Plan before Justice Scalia died, on the grounds that it was likely beyond the scope of their authority under the Clean Air Act.
The Supreme Court doesn't only opine on cases involving executive action. Of course, it also does so for legislative action by Congress. So Amy, do you see any provisions of existing energy and environmental law that could be called into question by a more conservative Supreme Court?
Amy Harder: Well certainly, I think one big target by conservatives was, is, has always been, and continues to be, and will be the 2007 Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency decision by the Supreme Court, which basically gave the federal government the ability and the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which is a very significant law that even some conservatives have defended since then.
And so I think Barrett's track record on environmental issues has not been as developed as perhaps other topics, but I do see that one as potentially being a target. But I think there's a lot of other issues that are a higher priority for conservatives, such as abortion and other topics like that.
I think generally speaking, with the continued tilt to the right by the Supreme Court, one big concern I would have if I were a Democrat or environmental leader is that there would be three remaining liberal justices, and you need four to agree to take up a case. And so there could be a lot of cases that are filed by environmental groups that might not even see the light of day at the Supreme Court, if Trump succeeds in confirming a conservative justice. So I think apart from the specific details of his nominee, I think there's some bigger issues that are at hand.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, that's an interesting point that you don't hear mentioned a lot. So Amy what's one not so well known race, either at the federal level or the state level, that you're watching closely? A race that tells us something about where the country might be heading on energy and environmental issues.
Amy Harder: I’ve always found the state of Colorado to be really fascinating, given it's a purple state. Politically, it has corners of conservatism, but corners of liberalism, and also has a huge oil and gas production.
So the Senate race there, which is relatively lower-profile compared to obviously the presidential election, the incumbent Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, vying against former Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper. I find that race interesting because it's a moderate Democrat, Hickenlooper, who actually has supported the oil and gas industry in Colorado, but has also pursued aggressive climate policies there as well. You've seen some environmental groups such as the League of Conservation Voters actually coming out to support Hickenlooper, even though they're probably not thrilled with his position on oil and gas. And so that type of race, I think, is interesting to see where the center of gravity is in a state like Colorado.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, really, really good example of a state that has a wide range of viewpoints on energy and environmental issues. So Amy, final question, we call this our
“Top of the Stack” question. What have you read, watched, or heard recently related to energy, the environment, climate, or perhaps a democratic process that you think is really interesting or that you'd recommend to our listeners?
Amy Harder: Yeah, definitely. Well, Daniel Yergin—I think he was recently on your program as well—has a new book out that I've started reading. Of course, he's such a well-respected expert on this front. And it's been fascinating to me to see his evolution as an energy historian to embrace the discussion of climate change more.
I remember once, about a year after or a little bit less than a year after I joined Axios, I was chatting with Dan and he said to me, like, "Geez, you're covering climate change a lot more." And I found that an interesting reflection of where the debate was, and the debate has shifted to climate change as well as energy so much more over the last several years.
And so I'm looking forward to finishing that book and I also recently read, given I just moved back to the Pacific Northwest, I recently read The Golden Spruce.
It's a book about this timber logger guy who turned to become an environmentalist and cut down this beautiful tree. And it really, to me, helped me appreciate forests more, and I love to go running in forests, and I haven't really covered that side of the environmental space as much. And so it really helped give me a sense of appreciation for trees and for forests, which just to bring it full circle, forests are becoming a top topic again in the climate change space as a source of offsets, as corporations have aggressive climate policies and Republicans in Congress are trying to support some climate policy. They talk about trees a lot. So those are some two examples that I would recommend.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, interesting. Well, top of my stack is also Dan Yergin's book, The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations. And as you mentioned, I'll be interviewing Dan Yergin and when this podcast airs, you'll be able to also view that online at rff.org. Well, Amy Harder, reporter at Axios, thanks so much for joining in this week. You've given us a lot of food for thought and let's see what happens in the coming months.
Amy Harder: Sounds great. Thank you again.
Richard G. Newell: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Thanks for tuning in. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.