Energy & Environment

GOP’s Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change

Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), the new top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, is emphasizing the planting of trees as part of a nature-based approach to climate change, an issue that is likely to be divisive as Democrats and the Biden administration look to take major steps to reduce U.S. emissions.

Republicans have been on defense over climate change in some respects — Democrats have slammed them as a party standing against science, an argument that appeared to help the party make gains among suburban voters as Democrats gained seats in the 2018 midterm elections and the White House in 2020.

Westerman wants Republicans to have a positive agenda to counter Democrats, even as the GOP also readies familiar arguments that President Biden’s climate change policies such as revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and suspending new leases for drilling on federal lands would harm the economy.

“I think we’ll see a good cross-section of legislation that’s aimed at sequestering carbon,” Westerman said of the committee this session.

The lawmaker is planning to reintroduce a bill from the last session that sought to commit the U.S. to planting some 3.3 billion trees each year, an increase of about 800 million trees per year, for the next 30 years. 

The bill was first unveiled last year amid a package of Republicans bills aimed at capturing carbon, either through nature or technology, that countered Democratic proposals for a clean energy credit trading system for utilities and for increasing emission standards on cars and trucks.

Westerman said his bill will include a few changes from last year’s version, with new provisions that address forest health and emphasize the potential uses of trees to make products from wood. 

“I think that’s the kind of policy that Democrats should work with us on instead of pushing these far-left ideas to shut down all energy production on federal lands,” he said of his legislation. 

Biden recently issued a temporary pause on new oil and gas leases, but the move does not affect existing oil and gas production. Similarly, on the campaign trail, he called for a ban on new oil and gas permits on federal lands and waters, but this would also not alter permits that are now in effect. 

Committee Democrats expressed skepticism about the tree-planting bill when it was first introduced, saying that it didn’t go far enough to prevent climate change. 

Scientists told The Hill at the time that planting trees would help the planet, but it’s unlikely to be a sufficient climate solution by itself.

A similar bill was introduced by bipartisan senators late last year, showing the idea at least does have some support on both sides of the aisle.

Westerman also said Republicans on the committee may seek to use other parts of nature like oceans and soil to store carbon and negate climate change, casting it as an effective way to combat global climate change. 

“There’s other things we can do on rangelands, as far as increasing soil carbon. I think there’s some members that are working on that. There’s other things that can be done in oceans,” he said. 

Climate change has generally not been an issue that has driven votes to the polls, particularly among pro-Trump voters.

A Pew Research Center survey from last summer found that fewer registered voters said climate change will be very important to their vote compared to issues like health care, the economy and foreign policy. Just 11 percent of Trump voters ranked it as very important.

At the same time, Republicans have been losing the battle on climate change, according to polls. The Pew survey found 58 percent of registered voters said that Democrats would do a better job of dealing with climate change than Republicans. 

Westerman also intends to push back on the administration and his Democratic colleagues on mining. 

Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) recently told The Hill that he hopes to change a 19th century law that allows companies to extract minerals from public lands without paying royalties, arguing that companies should have to pay to mine on government lands.

“When you start increasing the royalties and the cost of doing business, you’re just going to shift production overseas,” Westerman said. 

Westerman will count among his new colleagues on the committee one of the more controversial members of Congress, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who flirted with the QAnon conspiracy theory before distancing herself from it.

Boebert also made waves at a recent virtual committee hearing that occurred after The Hill’s interview with Westerman in which she appeared with several firearms visible behind her. 

Asked whether this would impact committee politics, Westerman said, “I think Lauren will be a good member on the committee. She represents a resource-rich district and I know she’s excited to be on the committee and begin serving.”

In becoming the top Republican on the committee, Westerman replaces retired Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

In his new role he’ll wield limited power, as Democrats don’t just control his chamber but also the Senate and White House, but the majority party will still have to contend with the Senate filibuster and more moderate members of their own caucus.

“I think the Senate’s got the real negotiating power because of the filibuster … the other glimmer of hope there is the fact that there’s some Democrats sitting in some really tight seats out there especially in places like Houston, Texas, where the economy is built around the energy sector,” Westerman said.

“I think when it gets down to the nitty gritty that some of these Democrats in tight districts will have a lot of pressure not to go along with the radical left,” he added.

Tags Bruce Westerman climate change bruce westerman republican democrat agenda tree planting carbon emissions regulation battle Joe Biden Rob Bishop

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