The Energy 202: A GOP congressman actually wants to tax carbon. But other Republicans said no.
To those waiting for Republicans to take any legislative step toward mitigating the effects of man-made climate change: There's good news and bad news.
First, the good news: On Monday, a House Republican will finally put forward a piece of legislation designed to discourage the burning of fossil fuels. The measure from Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida does so by placing a price on emitting carbon dioxide, which is the sort of measure most economists see as the most cost-effective way of reducing the buildup of the key greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
“I understand that the onus is on Republicans to step up and show that we're willing to tackle this issue in a meaningful way,” Curbelo said in an interview Thursday.
And the bad news? On that same day, 222 of Curbelo's GOP colleagues voted in favor of a resolution by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) declaring any such carbon tax would be “detrimental to the United States economy.”
The overwhelming success of the anti-carbon tax gesture shows the party led by President Trump — who personally rejects climate science — is far from ready to enact any measure to stem the release of more of greenhouse gases.
Representing a portion of South Florida already seeing frequent flooding, Curbelo has emerged as a lone voice with the GOP caucus trying to push his party toward embracing “market-based solutions” to a problem many Republicans refuse to even acknowledge.
But Curbelo is trying to make things less lonely for himself. He, along with fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D), founded the Climate Solutions Caucus two years ago to commit a bipartisan group of House members to addressing climate change. At least at the surface, the results are encouraging for environmental advocates. So far, 43 Republicans have joined the caucus.
But environmentalists are less encouraged when they take a look at caucus members' voting records. On Thursday, only six GOP representatives broke with the party and voted against the resolution declaring carbon taxes detrimental. (One Republican Climate Solutions Caucus member voted present.)
It is “astounding that House Republicans would pass an anti-climate resolution with outrageous and factually dubious claims that rejects outright one viable option for addressing climate change,” Deutch said Thursday. “Every member of Congress, especially Climate Solutions Caucus members, should keep all options available.”
Still, some others saw progress. “The fact that six Republicans voted 'no' on an anti-carbon tax resolution is an indication that there are cracks in the wall separating Democrats and Republicans on climate change,” said Mark Reynolds, executive director of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, a grass-roots environmental group that helped organize the caucus. “When a similar resolution came up in the previous Congress, every Republican voted for it.”
Among those Republicans who switched sides on the nonbinding resolution was Curbelo himself.
“I understand for a lot of colleagues when you ask the question in a vacuum, as this resolution did, any tax hurts economic growth.” Curbelo said walking from the floor Thursday after the vote. “But once you put it in a broader context, it can make sense.”
The Florida Republican said while he did not have “a formal whip operation” on the anti-carbon tax resolution, “we did engage members” of the caucus.
He regarded the timing of the resolution from the actual House whip as “a defensive move.” Scalise's office said the timing of his resolution was coincidental.
Curbelo's bill would repeal the federal gasoline tax and replace it with a tax on carbon dioxide levied directly against energy companies and some manufacturers. In turn, the Environmental Protection Agency would be prohibited from regulating carbon dioxide emissions.
Revenue from the carbon tax would go toward housing low-income people, mitigating coastal flooding, researching alternative energy and assisting displaced coal workers.
But the bulk of it would go toward building new infrastructure. “This bill, in addition to being responsible policy, does attempt to capture the political energy of the moment,” Curbelo said.
“Perhaps the only one” of Trump's agenda items, Curbelo added, “that was popular across the American electorate was infrastructure investment.”
Curbelo's bill has earned the support of some environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, whose senior policy adviser Jason Albritton called it “a pretty thoughtful approach to the issue.”
Conservative donors who twist the arms of Curbelo's fellow Republicans quickly dismissed his proposal. “The mere thought of a carbon tax is tantamount to throwing a wet blanket on an economy ignited by tax reform,” said Brent Gardner of Americans for Prosperity, the main political organizing arm of billionaire oilman Charles Koch's donor network.
At the beginning of Trump's presidency, a group of senior Republican statesmen, including former secretaries of state James A. Baker and George P. Shultz, pitched a similar “carbon fee and dividend” to the White House. Under that plan, the federal government would tax carbon but would redistribute the revenue directly to taxpayers. Gary Cohn, then head of Trump’s National Economic Council, heard Baker and his team out.
The White House ultimately did not embrace the plan.