By Greg Hibbard, Energy Law Fellow
Since taking back the House in 2018, some Democrats in Congress have taken a strong
Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer continues to be among the Democrats leading the charge against climate change. On July 18th, Representative Blumenauer (D-OR), along with Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), introduced legislation aimed at reducing emissions from the transportation sector at the state and local levels. Both representatives—who are also members of the Safe Climate Caucus—recognize that cleaning up the transportation system will play a significant role in reducing future greenhouse gas emissions because the transportation industry remains the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States.
The proposed legislation, titled the Green Transportation Act, would direct local and state action to reduce transportation emissions. Specifically, the bill would require both cities and states to set emission reduction goals through their long-term highway and public transit planning processes. The bill would institute reporting requirements to the Secretary of Transportation to monitor how greenhouse gas emissions are being accounted for. Unfortunately, however, the bill does not mandate any specific emissions reduction goals for cities and states. Instead, the bill provides that states and municipalities “shall provide for reductions in such emissions.” Therefore, cities and states would have discretion in setting their emissions reduction goals in their transportation plans.
Because the transportation sector is a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, the Green Transportation Act could play a key role in reducing these emissions nationwide. Due to the discretion provided for setting emissions reduction goals and its limited applicability to states and municipalities, the bill is not a complete answer to reducing transportation emissions to an appropriate level in light of climate change. However, other notable Democrats have recently introduced legislation pertaining to emissions from the transportation sector. Earlier this year, Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-CA) proposed legislation focused on increasing the use of electric school buses across the nation. In May, Senator Merkley (D-OR) proposed amending the Clean Air Act to create a national zero-emission vehicle standard. Together, these congressional actions could create a longstanding and meaningful impact on the currently carbon-intensive transportation industry. However, even if these actions do have a meaningful impact on transportation emissions, they will only represent a partial solution to a portion of the broader climate problem.
Comprehensive regulatory approaches like the Green New Deal will be necessary to curb climate change to the requisite degree. Such a broad paradigm shift, however, has proven to be politically difficult. In addition to approving the suite of policy reforms called for under the Green New Deal, Congress and federal agencies must then promulgate statutes and rules to effectuate the identified goals. Even if Democrats take both houses of Congress in the next election, it is difficult to anticipate whether and when such a sweeping climate program could take effect.
Representative Blumenauer and Senator Merkley should be commended for their efforts to take action against transportation emissions. However, combating climate change through the Green Transportation Act and bills with similarly narrow scope may present a dangerous dynamic. If legislation addressing climate change is passed incrementally, it could reduce political capital and political will to pursue a more comprehensive approach. For example, with multiple incremental policies in place, some politicians may believe that an inherently expensive, comprehensive approach would no longer be necessary. Even further, the political compromises made to pass those incremental acts may make it more difficult to garner enough support for broader legislation down the road.
With respect to combating climate change, some progress is better than no progress. It remains to be seen whether comprehensive environmental regulation will be easier to achieve following the next election. Either way, Representative Blumenauer, Senator Merkley, and other climate leaders of Congress should be strategic about their responses to climate change to avoid the risk of undercutting Congress’s ability to adopt a comprehensive climate policy framework like the Green New Deal.