Republican climate caucus members face pressure to back up their words with action

The Senate tax bill would open Arctic refuge to drilling and harm renewable energy incentives.

Climate activists with the Sunrise Movement protest in the office of Rep. Carlos Curbelo on December 4, 2017,, urging the Republican  to vote against any tax bill that allows drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. CREDIT: Anthony Torres
Climate activists with the Sunrise Movement protest in the office of Rep. Carlos Curbelo on December 4, 2017,, urging the Republican to vote against any tax bill that allows drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. CREDIT: Anthony Torres

Climate activists are pushing members of a House climate caucus to back up their words with action by voting against a tax bill that would open the Arctic to oil and gas drilling and weaken incentives for renewable energy production.

A group of environmental activists showed up early Monday morning at Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s (R-FL) Capitol Hill office to urge him to vote against the tax bill and ask him to play a leadership role in getting other Republicans to oppose it as well. Curbelo is the co-founder of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, a group formed in early 2016 that has 62 members, split equally between Democrats and Republicans.

“We went to his office to let him know that we’re watching what he’s doing. And that this tax bill, if it’s passed and if he votes for it, it would decimate all the good work he has done in bringing the caucus together and trying to create a safe space for Republicans to do something about climate change,” Evan Weber, co-founder of Sunrise Movement, a climate action group led by young people, told ThinkProgress.

The Senate passed its tax bill just before 2 a.m. Saturday, voting 51-49 on the legislation to overhaul the tax code. The bill included a provision that opens up a 1.5-million-acre part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling. A provision in the Senate bill could also stifle development of solar energy by undercutting the value of solar projects in financial markets. Furthermore, certain income from gas and oil operators could qualify for a new lower tax rate under the Senate bill.

The debate over opening ANWR to oil and gas drilling has been going on for decades. The refuge was established in 1960 to preserve and protect its unique wilderness and abundant wildlife. The results from a study of the area suggested that climate change and oil development “behave synergistically” when their future potential impacts on wildlife habitat are analyzed in unison. The simultaneous occurrence of climate change and oil development, for example, would intensify both of their individual contributions to habitat reduction for polar bears, the study said.

The Senate’s decision to include oil and gas exploration in a section of ANWR — known as the 1002 Area — in its tax bill was hailed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), a long-time supporter of opening up the area to resources extraction.

“Opening the 1002 Area and tax reform both stand on their own, but combining them into the same bill, and then successfully passing that bill, makes this a great day to be an Alaskan,” she said in a statement on Saturday.

In a November 30 letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 12 Republican representatives expressed their concerns about opening up part of the ANWR to oil and gas exploration. Seven of the representatives who signed the letter voted for the House Republicans’ tax bill, which did not have a provision opening up the refuge for drilling, earlier in November. Eight of the representatives who signed the letter are members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus.

“This bill is no good for the climate. And if these representatives are standing by their stated values, they will vote no on this bill. But that’s what we have to wait and see,” Weber said. “And if they don’t vote with their values and in the right direction, our plan for Sunrise Movement is to work in 2018 to replace them with someone who will.”

The Climate Solutions Caucus was formed after a volunteer with the advocacy group Citizens’ Climate Lobby approached Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) about establishing a bipartisan group to develop climate solutions. Deutch eventually teamed up with Curbelo to co-found the caucus.

In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby said it was encouraged to see the 12 Republicans — all of whom are either on the Climate Solutions Caucus or have signed a Republican Climate Resolution — speaking out on this issue. Recent numbers from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show that voters are generally not in favor of opening up the ANWR to drilling.

Activists are skeptical, however, of the intent behind certain conservative caucus-members’ actions. One of the most recent members of the caucus is freshman Florida congressman Matt Gaetz (R), whose first piece of legislation called for the Environmental Protection Agency to be abolished.

“Some of the members of the caucus are using the Climate Solutions Caucus as political cover in their districts to be able to say that they are doing something when really they’re towing the mainstream Republican party line and sticking up for the interests of their money donors,” Weber said.

The Sunrise Movement also led a brief protest Monday morning at the Springfield, Pennsylvania, office of Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), another member of the Climate Solutions Caucus.

“Congressman Meehan can’t have it both ways,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a Sunrise Movement leader in Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “He can’t claim to care about stopping climate change and protecting our future while voting for bills that will give huge tax breaks to the fossil fuel billionaires who are responsible for this crisis. We’re already getting ready for 2018 here and if he doesn’t clean up his act, young people will unseat him next November.”

Both Curbelo and Meehan signed the November 30 letter to congressional leadership opposing oil and gas drilling in ANWR, which the Senate tax bill would allow.