House Democrats Voted for a Natural Gas Future, and Nobody Noticed

Politics Features Fossil Fuels
House Democrats Voted for a Natural Gas Future, and Nobody Noticed

Last week, a video went viral of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) offering up an impassioned rebuke to Senate Republicans for bringing her Green New Deal to a premature vote the day before.

“This is about our constituents and all of our lives,” she fumed. “Iowa, Nebraska, broad swathes of the midwest are drowning right now, underwater—farms, towns that will never recover; will never come back. And we’re here, and people are more concerned about helping oil companies than helping their own families? I don’t think so. I don’t think so!”

Something that got less attention, however, was the vote the environmental champion and the vast majority of her Democratic colleagues cast two days earlier. Ocasio-Cortez had been one of 224 House Democrats to back a bill that, if passed, would allocate roughly $580 million in federal funding over two years to public and private energy development projects in Europe and Eurasia, including natural gas infrastructure.

Environmental groups hardly seemed to notice H.R. 1616. The Sierra Club told us it had not even taken an official position on the measure. But if passed into law, activists say the bill could solidify a decades-long transition to a natural gas energy future at a critical time for the environment.

H.R. 1616 was introduced by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-AL) early last month. Disguised as a measure to crack Russia’s energy dominance in Europe and Eurasia, it passed the House easily on March 25 with a margin of 391-to-24 and no Democratic opposition—though 10 Democrats did not vote, including six members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The bill’s true intention, however, seems to be opening up new energy markets to American fossil fuel companies, enabling the easy export of liquid natural gas.

In fact, it practically said so in its statement of policy.

“It is the sense of Congress that the United States has economic and national security interests in assisting European and Eurasian countries achieve energy security through diversification of their energy sources and supply routes,” it read, continuing on to explain that this would be accomplished by encouraging “United States public and private sector investment in European and Eurasian energy infrastructure projects” and by helping “facilitate the export of United States energy technology and expertise to global markets.”

In service of this aim, the bill resolved to provide “diplomatic and political support to the European Commission and such countries, as necessary to—A, facilitate international negotiations concerning cross-border infrastructure; B, enhance Europe’s and Eurasia’s regulatory environment with respect to energy; and C, develop accessible, transparent, and competitive energy markets supplied by diverse sources, types, and routes of energy.”

The middle provision is noteworthy in light of how strong the anti-fracking movement is in Europe. Thus far, four countries—France, Germany, Bulgaria, and Ireland—have banned the practice while the Netherlands has halted it until at earliest 2020. However, battles are still waging across the continent, which raises the question of what ‘enhancing’ the regulatory environment means.

In addition to U.S. political backing, the bill pledged “early-stage project support and late-stage project support for the construction or improvement of energy infrastructure” which included “natural gas infrastructure, such as interconnectors, storage facilities, liquefied natural gas import facilities, or reverse flow capacity.”

While it is true that H.R. 1616 could hurt fossil fuel-reliant Russia, activists Paste spoke to about the legislation had grave concerns about what its impact would be in terms of ending reliance on fossil fuels.

“We are transforming our energy system to natural gas, right now,” documentary filmmaker and globetrotting environmental activist Josh Fox told Paste. “That transition will last 40 years. That transition has to be halted immediately if we’re going to stand any chance of staying within reasonable climate goals.”

Fox, whose critically-acclaimed 2010 documentary Gasland was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, has been fighting this fight for years and sees fossil fuels as inherently linked to tyranny around the world. In 2016, he even helped write the Democratic platform as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders, securing the inclusion of language pledging to disincentivize the development of natural gas power plants. To him, Democratic votes for H.R. 1616 represent a betrayal.

“If Democrats are supporting bills that say fracked gas and fracked gas infrastructure should be developed in Europe then they are flying in the face of their own climate policy,” he explained. “It means that they’re encouraging a kind of climate denialism, it means that they’re pushing another kind of fossil fuel, and it means that they’re playing into the hands of these tyrannical forces that are going to commodify energy, whether that’s oil, coal, or gas.”

Fox also pointed out that while natural gas is often billed as a cleaner-burning alternative to other forms of fossil fuels, some studies have found that it is actually worse for the environment overall because of the unintended consequences of the extraction process, fracking—like the leakage of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Texas-based environmental activist Sharon Wilson, who is widely known as Texas Sharon, shares Fox’s concerns. She was stunned to learn of the provisions of H.R. 1616.

“I don’t understand what lawmakers don’t get about ‘climate crisis’ and ‘uninhabitable planet,’” she told Paste, pointing out that need for fossil fuels is quickly dwindling in light of advancements in renewable energy. “If you’re trying to get back at Russia, help the whole world move forward with renewable energy. That’s what people want. They don’t want to stay stuck on oil and gas. Help the world move forward w/ renewable energy. What can Russia do about that? They can’t control the sun; they can’t control the wind.”

Wilson, a senior organizer with the group Earthworks, has been documenting fossil fuel pollution with infrared cameras in the industrialized Permian Basin for months in the hopes of forcing regulatory action. She told Paste that she has seen firsthand the rapid, unsafe expansion of natural gas exploration to meet the demand for exports.

“They’re putting pipelines all over Texas to export oil and gas that will not benefit Americans; it will not benefit Texans,” she explained. “It will come at the expense of our water and our air and drilling waste all over [the] land. It all has to be stopped.”

Today, ending the fossil fuel industry seems a long way off. While its dominance in the energy market may be declining, it has ties in Washington that run deep on both sides of the aisle. In fact, Democrats have for years been receptive to and pushed the dubious claims about natural gas being a cleaner-burning alternative to other forms of fossil fuels. And although the party has been moving left on environmental issues, even the ambitious Green New Deal notably does not contain a prohibition on new natural gas development.

But calls for change are growing louder in response to increasingly troubling warnings from the scientific community. In October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a shocking report giving the world just 12 years to radically alter its energy consumption if global temperature increase is to be kept to 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels (it is currently 1°C warmer). Past that point, the report explained, the effects of climate change increase sharply in severity. Even a half-degree more could have remarkably profound consequences for all forms of life on earth.

The Senate version of H.R. 1616 is currently in committee. It was introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).

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