A Veteran of the Climate Wars Reflects On U.S. Failure to Act

One of the many casualties of the recent U.S. elections was Congressman Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat who played a key role in passage of cap-and-trade legislation by the House of Representatives. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Boucher discusses the bitter failure of the Senate to pass a climate bill and future prospects for tackling global warming.

For those concerned about climate change, June 2009 was a heady time, with the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passing a bill that put a price and a cap on carbon emissions. Few congressmen were more instrumental in the bill’s passage than Rick Boucher, a moderate Democrat from southwestern Virginia’s coal-producing region who incorporated several key compromises that attracted the support of leading utility companies and several other coal-state legislators. Thanks, in part, to Boucher, the bill passed the house, 219 to 212.

That vote was a high water mark for U.S. climate change action; afterwards, President Obama expended his political capital on health care legislation, and the Senate ultimately failed to pass the climate bill approved by the House. That failure would come back to haunt Boucher and 31 other Democrats, whose support of cap-and-trade legislation would be used as a bludgeon against them by their successful Republican opponents last November.

Rick Boucher
U.S. House of Representatives
Rick Boucher

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Boucher, who stepped down this week after 28 years in Congress, talks about the role his support of climate legislation played in his failed re-election campaign. His opponent, Morgan Griffith — whose campaign declared that “Boucher Betrayed Coal” — contends that the incumbent’s embrace of the climate bill was the primary factor in his defeat. But Boucher maintains his support of the legislation was not as important as the strong anti-Democratic wave that washed over his district and the country.

Speaking with Washington, D.C.-based journalist Louis Peck, Boucher also discussed why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cannot do as good a job of regulating greenhouse gas emissions as Congress and outlined limited bipartisan steps that the new, 112th Congress may take to reduce CO2 emissions.

Yale Environment 360: During this fall’s campaign, your Republican opponent made your support of climate change legislation a centerpiece of his attacks on you, and one of several so-called independent expenditure groups opposed to your candidacy plastered the district with signs declaring, “Boucher Betrayed Coal.” In view of such factors, how much of a role do you feel the cap-and-trade bill played in your defeat?

Rick Boucher: Well, it was a factor, but it wasn’t decisive. The fact is that most of the advertising [against me] was based on the general dislike on the part of the public of the Democratic agenda, broadly speaking — and most of the advertising simply tied me to the president and to the Speaker of the House. And the key message was, if you don’t like a Democratic agenda that is promoted by these individuals, then vote against Rick Boucher.

And about $3 million in outside expenditures on television simply blanketed the airwaves with that negative message, targeting me from Labor Day on. Three million dollars in a very inexpensive media market like my region goes as far as about six times that amount of money would go in the Washington, D.C. area. You literally could not turn on the television from Labor Day through the election without seeing several attack ads within a very short time, all targeting me with that same core message. So the cap-and-trade issue was part of that, but it certainly wasn’t the largest part by any means.

The message was ‘Rick Betrayed Coal.’ It was an easy charge to make, a more difficult charge to rebut.”

The key problem was that, with respect to cap-and-trade, I had to spend the better part of two months in an intense series of negotiations to modify the original draft by [House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman] Henry Waxman so as to make it acceptable for the coal-fired utilities. I was able to achieve that by providing free allowances, as opposed to having the allowances be auctioned, and by providing 2 billion tons of offsets on an annual basis throughout the life of the program — so that coal-fired utilities could simply pay others to reduce emissions, by planting trees for example, and take full credit for those emission reductions. And that will be the principal strategy that utilities use in order to meet the reduction requirements with which they have to comply if cap-and-trade legislation is ever adopted. We assured that ability in the House bill. Now, as part of the negotiation process, once your amendments are accepted, in return you support the legislation — which is of course what I did.

e360: Can you briefly outline some of the other changes you sought and achieved?

Boucher: The third thing that I did was to provide the funding that is necessary to develop and then deploy carbon capture-and-sequestration (CCS) technologies. It was about $10 billion in assured funding for CCS development over a 10-year period, and then it was up to $150 billion in emission allowance values in-kind to the utilities that decided to deploy CCS. So that would assure not only that it was developed, but also deployed.

Those were the major categories. And that drew to the bill the support of the coal-fired utilities. The Edison Electric Institute [the major trade association for the electric utility industry] supported the bill; American Electric Power, the largest coal-fired utility in the nation, endorsed the legislation, as did Duke Energy, which is the third-largest coal user in the nation. And that was because of the changes I was able to negotiate into the measure. The largest coal mine in my congressional district is operated by Consol, based in Pittsburgh. And Consol endorsed my campaign, and assisted me by hosting fundraisers and doing other things. But, in the end, the message was “Rick Betrayed Coal.” It was an easy charge to make; it was a more difficult charge to rebut.

It’s very difficult to explain a four-step process that led me to the results — the fact that, if Congress did not act, EPA would regulate, and, if so, with imperfect tools in a way that would harm the coal industry and harm the electric utilities. Therefore, to overcome EPA taking those steps, we needed to pass legislation. It was not possible to obtain the votes to override EPA authority entirely, and so we needed to negotiate an achievable set of provisions to protect coal and coal-fired utilities. And that’s precisely what we did in the House bill. That’s a four-step process, and it’s very difficult to explain that in the dynamics of a political campaign. It’s a one-step process to accuse me of betraying coal, but it’s a four-step process to explain that what I did was in coal’s interest.

e360: As you know, there have been complaints from some of your House colleagues that Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed the House in the middle of 2009 to vote on the cap-and-trade issue without any guarantees that the Senate would act. The Senate never acted, with the end result being that a lot of House members were exposed politically for casting a difficult vote, with ultimately no law in place to show for it. Is this a fair complaint?

Boucher: No, it’s not. The House went first because we were ready to go first. During the two years [2007-2008] that I chaired the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee, we had 28 days of hearings on the subject of climate change. In partnership with [then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman] John Dingell, I drafted climate change legislation.

“I think it was a significant shortcoming that the Senate did not take this measure up.”

We published our discussion draft in the fall of 2008, for public comment. The comments we received back were highly positive. We spent four months working with staffs and drafting that discussion bill. And it created the foundation for the bill by Henry Waxman. We were ready to go. The Senate did not have the benefit of that foundation work, and it did not have the legislative draft that it could act on at that point. And I encouraged Henry Waxman and the White House for the House to go first. But let me add that the Senate should have acted on this measure. When the House acted, the Senate had a year and a half in which to assemble the political will to act, and I think it was a significant shortcoming that the Senate did not take this measure up.

e360: There has also been criticism that the Obama White House did not press the Senate hard enough to act on cap-and-trade legislation. Do you share those sentiments?

Boucher: I’m not going to comment on that.

e360: Turning to the national political situation this past fall, 52 sitting House Democrats lost their bids for re-election. Of these, 32 had voted for the cap-and-trade bill the year before, and 20 had opposed it. Outside of the situation in your own district, how much of a role do you think this legislation played in the election results across the country?

Boucher: My sense is that there were several key issues on the Democratic agenda that the corporate groups who were opposed to Democrats across the country used in the course of the advertising. The message in most of these campaigns was the same, and that is “If you don’t like the president, if you don’t like the House Speaker, then vote for another person for Congress, send them a message.” And any of the three or four key issues on the Democratic agenda could be used to make that case — whether it was financial regulation reform, health care reform, cap-and-trade, or the economic [stimulus] act. Those were the four big ones. You only really had to vote for one or two of those for an outside group to make the argument that you were voting in lockstep with the administration or with the Speaker of the House.

So the cap-and-trade issue was only one of the four, and I don’t think it had any resonance greater than the others. In fact, I would expect that health care reform probably had greater resonance — I voted against that. My constituency was overwhelmingly against the health care reform. My constituency was somewhat more agnostic on cap-and-trade.

e360: With the House under Republican control in the incoming 112th Congress, many have declared cap-and-trade legislation dead for the foreseeable future. Is that a view that you share, and, if so, do you see any chance for significant energy or climate change legislation over the next couple of years?

“EPA simply lacks the mechanisms and legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases effectively.”

Boucher: Well, I think it’s going to be very difficult to pass cap-and-trade, given the strong opposition of the Republican House leadership and the Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The more likely next step will come from the Environmental Protection Agency, and EPA is on track now to have a regulation on greenhouse gases from stationary sources in place in 2011. And, unfortunately, EPA simply lacks the mechanisms and the legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases effectively.

For example, it can’t establish a trading program, it can’t create the offsets that I’ve discussed previously, which create a shock absorber in terms of the cost of remediation, and the cost of making these reductions. What it can do is really just regulate under the 1970 Clean Air Act, which essentially means point source regulation. And that’s the least efficient way to regulate greenhouse gases. So I don’t think EPA can do this work well, whatever its intentions, because it simply lacks the legal mechanisms to do the job effectively.

I don’t think the votes are going to exist in the Congress to completely overturn EPA regulation — although, depending on what kind of regulation EPA puts forward, there may be an effort made, and it could succeed, to at least pass legislation suspending that regulation for some limited period of time. But I seriously doubt that the president would sign it into law.

e360: Since one of your arguments in favor of legislation was to head off a situation in which EPA would seek to regulate greenhouse gases through executive rulemaking authority, do you feel that Congress’s failure to act now justifies EPA moving ahead with such a regulatory scheme?

Boucher: Well, they’re under a court mandate, so it’s not a question of whether they’re justified or not. It’s a question of their having to do it. The Massachusetts vs. EPA decision [in 2007] held that greenhouse gases are pollutants. But, under the mechanisms of the 1970 Clean Air Act, EPA had an obligation to determine whether or not a failure to regulate greenhouse gases would constitute a threat to human health and the environment. And a finding of harm has now in fact been promulgated by EPA. In fact, even in the [George W.] Bush administration, EPA had concluded that there was a threat to human health and the environment from greenhouse gases, and that they should be regulated. That endangerment finding was communicated to the White House during the George Bush administration, although it never actually was published.

e360: Given the dim prospects for cap-and-trade legislation in the near future, do you think there are other greenhouse gas reduction proposals that could garner sufficient support to pass — for example, increased incentives for electric vehicles, or your proposal for a fund to advance carbon capture-and-sequestration technologies aimed at cleaner coal burning?

Boucher: I wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation emerge that would provide funding for carbon capture-and-sequestration development. That measure was bipartisan; it was a separate measure that I introduced with Fred Upton [a Michigan Republican who will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee beginning in January]. We introduced that not in this past Congress, but in the previous Congress. And it drew a very broad base of support on a bipartisan basis. So I would not be surprised to see an effort made to enact that measure.