A Look at Climate Legislation in the 117th Congress

Environmental sustainability is arguably one of the most pressing topics in politics today. With extreme weather occurrences in Texas and wildfires along the west coast, the climate crisis is already having tangible effects on the livelihood of Americans. According to Pew Research Center, climate change was one of the top 12 issues for the 2020 Presidential election, with 42% of voters stating it was an important factor in their decision and majority stating it was a somewhat important factor. Policy makers and organizations take vastly different approaches to tackling this crisis, from supporting a carbon tax to researching clean energy to advocating for a ban on fracking. However, despite all the talk on this issue, very rarely are specific pieces of legislation mentioned. We have all heard of the Great New Deal, a resolution introduced in the 116th Congress by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey. But that is just one of hundreds of environmentally focused pieces of legislation. As important as it is to fight for sustainability-focused policies, it’s important to know what we are fighting for; not all climate bills are created equal. This post will discuss three of the 80 climate related bills introduced in the 117th Congress (as of March 10th, 2021) that caught my eye.

H.R.260 — Women and Climate Change Act of 2021

The Women and Climate Change Act of 2021 (H.R. 260) was introduced in the House of Representatives on January 11, 2021 by Representative Barbara Lee. She is a Democrat who has represented California’s 13th Congressional District, the city of Oakland, since 1998. During her time in Congress, Representative Lee has worked to combat climate change, opposing Big Oil, advocating for investments in renewable energy technology, protecting endangered species, and preserving public land (2). She strongly opposed Former President Trump’s rollback on clean car standards and stated that his decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement was a “reckless abdication of American leadership on the global stage” (3). In addition to H.R. 260, Representative Lee has also introduced H.Res.29 Resolution Supporting the Teaching of Climate Change in Schools and H.Res.30 Supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the 117th Congress. Congresswoman Lee serves as a Senior Member of the Appropriation Committee, specifically on the following: Chair of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, and Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies. She also represents the Appropriations Committee on the House Budget Committee.

As of February 1st, the bill has 42 Cosponsors, all of whom are Democrats.

Earlier versions of this bill were introduced in the 115th and 116th Congresses in both the House by Representative Lee and Senate by Senator Hirono of Hawaii (4). The Women and Climate Change Act of 2019, introduced during the 116th Congress, was endorsed by the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (5).

“Conflict and displacement due to climate change has led to violence and sexual exploitation against women, as well as increased health risks and mortality rates. For too long, women have been excluded from key climate change policy decisions despite being especially vulnerable.” — Representative Barbara Lee

Purpose of the Bill

This goal is approached with two action items, the first being the establishment of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Women and Climate Change. The working group’s goal is to “prevent and respond to the effects of climate change on women globally,” and will consist of senior level representatives from several federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, the United States Agency for International Development, and relevant offices under the Department of State. Specifically, the group will integrate climate change policies both internationally and domestically, ensure federal departments are operating within specified guidelines, consult with non-governmental organizations and policy experts to increase reach of the program and increase public awareness, improve data collection on topics like unpaid care work and women’s involvement in leadership.

Action Items

The second action item of this bill is to designate an individual to serve as the Senior Coordinator for Women and Climate Change. The person in this role will direct activities, policies, programs and funding from the Department of State relating to the effects of climate change on women, in addition advising the Executive Office of the President and resolving disputes between federal agencies. The role will report to Ambassador-at-Large for the Office of Global Women’s Issues and the Secretary of State.

Within 180 days of the enactment of the act and annually thereafter, the Ambassador-at-Large and Senior Coordinator will brief appropriate congressional committees on the effects of climate change on women, prevention and response strategies to these challenges, and submit an assessment on human and financial resources to fulfill the act.

This bill has been assigned to the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Personal Perspective

However, this bill lacks directly actionable changes but instead builds more bureaucracy. As much as having good leadership and decision making processes in place, this new hierarchical leadership structure could increase how long it takes to get anything done on a very time-sensitive issue. Furthermore, while it isn’t necessarily an advantage or disadvantage, this is a piece of national legislation that has international reach — if it were to become law, it is important that the Senior Coordinator and Ambassador-at-large properly work with the international communities they want to support.

S.101 & H.R.516 Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021

Representatives Involved

Senator Markey introduced this bill on behalf of himself and Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She was elected into the Senate in 2016 after serving in the House. She works to improve veteran access to healthcare, housing, and employment, and advocates for improved infrastructure to protect Illinois residents from lead poisoning (9). She co-founded the Senate’s first Environmental Justice Caucus with Senators Cory Book of New Jersey and Tom Carper of Delaware (10). Senator Duckworth serves on the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, Senate Armed Services Committee, Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, and U.S. Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship (11).

The Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021 was also introduced in the House of Representatives on the same day by Representative Cori Bush. She is the first Black woman and first nurse to represent Missouri, specifically representing Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, the St. Louis area. Following the murder of Michael Brown Jr. and providing triage-medical care for the affected community, Representative Bush got involved with activism against police brutality. This paved her path to the position of co-founder of The Truth Telling Project, leader of the protest group #ExpectUS, and eventually running for office at the suggestion of fellow community leaders. As a member of the House, she works towards legislation protecting black lives and Medicare For All (12). Congresswoman Bush services on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform (including Subcommittee on the Environment and Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy) and House Judiciary Committee (including Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security and Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties) (13).

“We have long-known that communities of color and low-income communities have experienced unsustainably high pollution levels, and this pandemic has made it even more clear how inextricably connected pollution is with public health.” — Senator Edward Markey

Purpose of the Bill

The established Environmental Justice Mapping Committee will have one representative from various relevant departments, such as the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of the Interior, and Department of Service. There will also be three co-chairs, one from the EPA, one from the Council on Environmental Quality, and one with substantial public engagement experience. In addition to the committee, there will be an Advisory Council composed of relevant stakeholders with at least half representing EJCs; this council will be consulted for public engagement and recommendations.

Action Items

The second duty is to assess and address the present data gaps. This will be done through a data audit by federal departments and agencies to examine the level of detail and accessibility of the data, address the need for improved monitoring, and include recommendations to other departments. The committee will direct federal departments on how to best address the gap through benchmarks, instructions for consistency, and best practices for collecting data.

The third duty is to collect data for the environmental justice data repository. This data should be updated as often as possible, but at least every three years, must be available to regional, state, local, and tribal governments, and cannot be used to discriminate against EJCs.

In order to carry out all goals of this act, the committee will be allocated $20 million for each of fiscal years 2021 and 2022 and $18 million for each of fiscal years 2023 through 2025.

This bill has been assigned to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Natural Resources.

Personal Perspective

I believe the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act tackles the very important yet often forgotten topic of data accessibility. All good policy needs good data, or else you are making decisions that are not in line with a current reality. The lack of environmental data at the community level is a barrier to proposing climate legislation in the first place. The enactment of this act can lead to much more thorough and community-centered pieces of environmental legislation for years to come, and as they get implemented we can see how these communities’ data change.

However, this bill, similarly to the previous one, lacks short-term change. The future in which this newfound data and understanding of EJCs will one day lead to better, more equitable policies is a hypothetical future. The U.S. needs to not only conduct more research but also to take what we already know and use to pass beneficial legislation.

H.R.653 — West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2021

Representatives Involved

He serves on the Committee on Natural Resources, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, specifically on the following subcommittees: Chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, Subcommittee on Energy Mineral Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Material. He also founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which protects the secular nature of our government, champions free speech worldwide, and promotes public policy based on reason, science, and moral values (16).

Earlier versions of this bill were introduced in the 114th, 115th, and 116th congresses, all in the House by Representative Huffman; none of these reiterations received a vote (17).

“The science and wave of public opposition is clear: America’s oceans must be protected from dangerous offshore drilling,” — Representative Jared Huffman (18)

Purpose of the Bill

Offshore drilling threatens the livelihood of marine life and coastal economies and increases the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. Whenever offshore drilling is conducted, there is significant risk of an oil spill; the April 2010 BP oil spill at the Gulf of Mexico cost the tourism industry $22.7 billion and local commercial fishing industry $247 million (20). Arctic oil drilling threatens polar bears, narwhals, and walruses. In all instances of oil drilling, the U.S. increases its dependence on fossil fuels for energy and therefore releases more pollutants into the air (21).

Action Items

“Prohibition Of Oil And Gas Leasing In Certain Areas Of The Outer Continental Shelf. — Notwithstanding any other provision of this section or any other law, the Secretary of the Interior shall not issue a lease for the exploration, development, or production of oil or natural gas in any area of the outer Continental Shelf off the coast of the State of California, Oregon, or Washington.”

A ban on oil and gas leasing would not be unprecedented; Former President Obama banned drilling on the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic in 2015. Former President Trump signed a memorandum prohibiting drilling at the Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia coasts until 2032 (23). However, there have also been efforts to increase offshore drilling in the U.S. During April 2017, Former President Trump signed Executive Order 13795, which encouraged the Department of the Interior “reconsider efforts to limit or regulate offshore oil and gas development” (24). Instead, the U.S. will take on the policy to “to encourage energy exploration and production, including on the Outer Continental Shelf, in order to maintain the Nation’s position as a global energy leader…” (25). More recently, President Biden signed in Executive Order 13990 to revoke this order and additionally signed Executive Order 14008 to stop all oil and gas leasing until there is a review on the leasing and permitting program.

This bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Personal Perspective

However, this bill only amends a previous law on offshore leasing; it does not address American concerns surrounding an amendment like this. The main argument against banning offshore drilling is that it will negatively affect working Americans and hurt coastal economies. By enacting this ban without addressing these concerns, the stakeholders in this ban might respond adversely to it. I would encourage Representative Huffman to include findings on the benefits of banning offshore drilling and policy on supporting affected communities economically and environmentally.

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.