Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights

Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights
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The Senate is positioned to move ahead with a coronavirus emergency aid package free of controversial efforts to bolster the oil industry or measures to reduce the carbon footprint of the airline industry that threatened to spark protests on both sides of the aisle.

Summaries of the historic $2 trillion legislation show there is no “$3 billion bailout for big oil,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell blocks resolution condemning Trump over treatment of protesters House Democrat demands answers from Secret Service about role breaking up White House protests Pelosi, Schumer say treatment of protesters outside White House 'dishonors every value that faith teaches us' MORE (D-N.Y.), and it does not require airlines to go carbon neutral with domestic flights by 2025.

Environmental measures were a sticking point for lawmakers in both parties, with Republicans repeatedly comparing certain Democratic proposals as being akin to the Green New Deal.

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Various Democrats, meanwhile, had penned letters expressing their opposition to any oil industry bailouts, arguing a public health crisis shouldn’t be used to contribute to climate change.

The omission of $3 billion to purchase oil is a significant blow to the Trump administration, which earlier this month had expressed confidence Congress would provide the full funding needed to fill the nation’s petroleum reserves.

“It is a common sense move. Everyone who has done any version of investing knows you try to buy low and sell high,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said on a call with reporters last week in announcing the department’s plan to buy 30 million barrels of oil.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE’s directive to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve “right up to the top,” would max out at 77 million barrels.

The Department of Energy did not respond to questions from The Hill as to whether the 30 million barrel purchase would continue.

The oil industry, which has been hit hard by falling prices, would still be eligible to participate in a $500 billion corporate assistance program that’s part of the overall package.

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Democrats initially warned that the program could easily turn into a “slush fund,” but the measure now includes provisions for stricter oversight, namely a Senate-approved inspector general.

Also absent from the Senate bill were proposals from Monday’s $2.5 trillion House bill that sought commitments from the airline industry to reduce their emissions in exchange for taxpayer funds.

Democrats had argued that the $25 billion for passenger airlines, as well as the $4 billion for cargo carriers, needed to come with strings attached, much like the auto industry bailout from the Great Recession was followed by regulations increasing fuel economy.

“Airlines that want public support should live public values,” Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseRosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Federal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in MORE (D-R.I.) tweeted last week when pushing for environmental guardrails.

The House version would have required airlines to post emissions from flights alongside prices and set binding targets to reduce emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. It also would have initiated a government program to buy older, less efficient places from airlines.

Senate Republicans blasted the possibility of including emissions standards in an emergency coronavirus aid package.

“Emissions standards? What’s that got to do with the virus? Nothing,” Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeMinority caucuses call for quick action on police reform Calls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Bipartisan Senate panel leaders back fund to deter China MORE (R-Okla.) said on the floor Monday.

Instead, the package helps secure airline industry jobs and prevents companies from stock buybacks while relying on federal funds, plus an additional year.

That provision left environmental groups disappointed.

“Taxpayers, many of whom are now struggling financially, have the right to expect responsible behavior by companies in exchange for these bailouts. Instead, taxpayers will pay twice — once now to the airline companies, and later in the form of tens of billions of dollars in additional damages from climate change,” the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement.

The Senate package also appears to have killed any effort to include tax incentives for the wind and solar industry.

Green groups argued that any help for oil companies should be balanced out with support for the renewable energy industry, which is also likely to take a hit from the coronavirus economic downturn.

“We need to make sure that vital yet vulnerable industry is not ignored while big oil is advocating for their interests,” Melinda Peirce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, told The Hill earlier this week.