If Democrats Want a 'Green New Deal,' These Congressional Investigations Need to Happen


A startling new report on climate change from the Trump administration makes clear that if the U.S. government and other major polluters don’t do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the resulting climate impacts will be dramatic and costly, both to the U.S. economy and the long-term livability of the planet.

These dire warnings are nothing new, but they come at a time when the Democratic party appears potentially willing to invest serious political capital on the issue of climate change. A new generation of Democrats, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshly elected New York representative, are pushing the old guard towards a “Green New Deal.”

But if Dems want that effort to succeed, they have some work to do first.

While there are few details yet about what the Dem’s Green New Deal will look like, it will no doubt be met with fierce opposition by D.C. insiders and lobbyists who have made careers out of delaying action on climate change. It will be an all out war (in the verbal sense, of course), with billions of dollars at stake for fossil fuel companies which have shown over the decades that they will stop at nothing to preserve their old way of doing things.

However, with the Democrats holding a clear majority in the House of Representatives, a huge opportunity lies in the investigative powers of the committees they will now lead (here’s a quick summary of Congressional investigative powers).

These committees have the power to subpoena witnesses and expose the people and organizations who have been willing to risk the planet to eke out a few more dollars for themselves and their shareholders.

Looking forward and developing aggressive clean energy policies to aid the rapid deconstruction of the fossil fuel industry should be only part of the strategy for Democrats.

They must also investigate and bring to justice the corruption that has proliferated in the Trump administration and effectively stalled climate action. The Democrats must also look back and understand how and why the world is in such a time of urgency when it comes to climate change, despite scientists having rung the alarm bells for decades.

As the oft-quoted Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu warned, you need to know both yourself and the enemy in order to win in battle.

Here are some key climate and environmental controversies of the Trump administration that House Democrats should investigate if they want to see their Green New Deal succeed:

Former EPA Head Scott Pruitt

Former Oklahoma Attorney General and EPA chief Scott Pruitt. Credit: Gage SkidmoreCC BYSA 2.0

Scott Pruitt resigned as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in early July under a cloud of ethical questions. But just because he is out of power, does not mean the scrutiny about his activities while in office should go away.

In fact, it makes more sense than ever that Pruitt be put in the hot seat to answer tough questions about his alleged ethical violations and very controversial environmental policy decisions. While in office Pruitt made a lot of devastating changes to environmental protections and he should be held accountable for how he made those changes.

For instance, who did the EPA head consult when making decisions about revisions to environmental protection policies? Scientists? Experts? Or was it organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing dark money group which endorsed Pruitt’s nomination?

Then there is Pruitt’s very public and very questionable spending and ethical behaviour while in office. Among the questionable activities was Pruitt’s liberal use of private and military aircraft to fly home to Oklahoma, his attempts to use the power of his office to get his wife a job, and his enlisting government security staff to run personal errands for him — all using taxpayers dollars. 

The American public can’t know to what extent Pruitt might have used his government position to benefit himself personally unless there is a full and open investigation into the matter.

Clean Power Plan

A coal power plant in Iowa. Credit: RichCC BYNC 2.0

In October 2015, the Obama administration enacted the Clean Power Plan, which was aimed at significantly reducing climate change emissions from power plants, especially those burning coal.

The Trump administration ordered the EPA to review the the Clean Power Plan in March of this year, a move experts say is the first step in abolishing the plan all together. In August, the EPA did just that, proposing in its place the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE).

When President Obama officially announced the Clean Power Plan, he said that:

We have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that’s not polluted or damaged. The effects of climate change are already being felt across the nation. In the past three decades, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change is putting those Americans at greater risk of landing in the hospital.” 

In light of the recent United Nations report concluding the world has perhaps 12 years left to limit the worst effects of climate change, the House Dems should investigate the process the Trump administration used before scrapping the Clean Power Plan.

Who was at the table for consultation? Who was lobbying whom and when? Were there promises made to industry? 

Clean Car Standards

Onlookers gather around a BMW i8 Concept electric sports car. Credit: AtramosCC BY 2.0 

In August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the EPA announced a new proposed rule that would freeze fuel efficiency standards at 2020 levels and allow the EPA to revoke California’s waiver to set its own emissions standards, as well as the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulation. The ZEV incentivizes automakers to research and market electric vehicles.

All told, nine other states have adopted the ZEV Regulation and 13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the California emission standards.

The Trump administration’s proposal completely misrepresents costs and savings, relying heavily on blatantly biased studies from groups funded by the oil and gas industries. Public documents even show internal disagreement between EPA and NHTSA over how to portray these assumptions in a way that supports the end goal of rolling back the standards.

Under Trump, the U.S. government is attempting to kill the electric car all over again and keep drivers captive to gasoline. These initiatives are counter to the free market principles the Trump administration purportedly espouses. 

Given the momentum in electric and hybrid vehicle production and sales, the electric car is a growth sector that Trump and his administration should encourage, not hobble.  

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and former U.S. Congressman Bob Beauprez. Credit: Gage SkidmoreCC BYSA 2.0

Ryan Zinke’s tenure as the head of the Department of the Interior has been riddled with scandals and ethics violations from the start. He is currently the subject of multiple internal investigations, some of which have been recommended to the Department of Justice for further action.

Perhaps one of Zinke’s most influential actions has been installing fossil fuel lobbyists and advocates in top positions across his department, which oversees dozens of beloved national parks, endangered species protections, and at least 500 million acres of public lands and the fossil fuels, timber, and minerals on them.

From his hiring of long time oil lobbyist David Bernhardt as Deputy Secretary, to installing the oil-funded politician Scott Angelle as head of offshore drilling safety enforcement, Zinke has infested the Interior with fossil fuel friends and lackeys.

The conflicts of interest are so brazen that ethical lapses have already surfaced on a number of occasions. Predictably, David Bernhardt and other appointees have taken pains to obscure their calendars, travel, and other actions from public scrutiny, making it impossible to know if ethics agreements are being honored.

Further digging into the schedules and communications of top Interior appointees is necessary to ensure compliance with Department of Interior rules against corruption.

These are the appointees with close ties to the fossil fuel industry whose communications, briefing books, and schedules should be released in full and analyzed for ethics violations:

  • David Bernhardt
  • James Cason
  • Susan Combs
  • Kate MacGregor
  • Todd Wynn
  • Tim Williams
  • Scott Angelle
  • Kathy Benedetto
  • Todd Willens
  • Doug Domenech
  • Joe Balash
  • Cally Younger
  • Casey Hammond
  • Landon Tucker Davis
  • Preston Beard

The Keystone XL Pipeline

Wisconsin Stands Against Tar Sands. Credit: Joe BruskyCC BYNC 2.0

The drama continues to unfold on this hotly debated oil pipeline from Canada’s tar sands region, with a new federal court injunction vacating President Trump’s presidential permit allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to go ahead.

This pipeline, among the many approved and heavily advocated for by the White House, shows all the signs of not going away anytime soon. It is time to get to the bottom of the story and look at who is lobbying where, and the corporate agenda that is keeping Keystone XL in play.

Pipeline Approvals and Safety

Damage from the 2010 San Bruno, California, gas line explosion. Credit: Thomas HawkCC BYNC 2.0

The recent and massive boom in oil and gas pipeline construction is being greased by the Trump administration’s disregard for environmental and safety concerns.

Pipelines across the U.S. are being quickly and shoddily constructed, and pipelines new and old are exploding at an alarming rate. There have already been instances where the Trump administration has granted permits for construction in a slipshod and haphazard way, resulting is serious damage to people and property.

The permitting process for the Atlantic Coast pipeline, the Mountain Valley pipeline, and Line 3 replacement should be examined in detail.

Did permitting authorities ignore legal requirements for Native consultations, environmental protections, and climate impacts at the behest of political appointees? Communications between lobbyists, industry, and top appointees should be investigated.

Exxon Knew, Shell Knew, They All Knew

Exxon Knew signs over a highway in Seattle, Washington. Credit: John DuffyCC BY 2.0

Confidential documents have emerged, especially in the past three years, showing Exxon, Shell, American Petroleum Institute (API), and other oil interests had extensive internal knowledge of the impending climate crisis dating back to the 1970s and beyond.

These same companies failed to disclose this internal knowledge of the threat to shareholders or governments while adapting their own operations to foreseeable impacts and ultimately working in the 1990s and 2000s to cast uncertainty on the science and block regulatory action.

Over the past eighteen months, litigation has been filed by states (Rhode Island), cities (Baltimore, New York City, San Francisco, Oakland) and counties (Boulder, Marin) against fossil fuel companies.

Congress should investigate the extent to which Exxon, API, and others studied climate change well before it became an urgent environmental policy issue in the late 1980s.  

In addition, Congress needs to investigate the corporate campaigns aimed at producing “uncertainty” around climate change to slow down policy measures starting in the 1990s.

Paris Climate Agreement

The Eiffel Tower lit up in green to celebrate the Paris Agreement’s negotiation at the 2015 United Nations climate talks. Credit: Yan CaradecCC BYSA 2.0

In September 2016 the Obama administration formally announced that the United States would enter the iconic global treaty on climate change, the Paris Agreement.

Speaking at the time of the announcement, President Obama stated that:

One of the reasons I ran for this office was to make sure that America does its part to protect this planet for future generations. Over the past seven and a half years, we’ve transformed the United States into a global leader in the fight against climate change. But this is not a fight that any one country, no matter how powerful, can take alone. That’s why last December’s Paris Agreement was so important. Nearly 200 nations came together as  —  a strong, enduring framework to set the world on a course to a low-carbon future.”

On June 1, 2017, President Trump stood on the lawns of the White House Rose Garden to announce that his administration would cease to participate in the Paris Agreement. Environmental groups and world leaders were predictably irate, but those in attendance at the announcement likely felt vindicated after battling for many years against a global climate treaty.

The Paris Agreement has continued to be a thorny issue for Trump. At the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires, a statement issued on climate change by leaders in attendance included a portion, no doubt at the behest of Trump, stating that “[t]he United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and affirms its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment.”  

Dems need to get to the bottom of this. There is a blantant strategy underway to dismantle U.S. involvement in the Paris Agreement, and Democrats should know who is doing what and where if they want a Green New Deal that includes international cooperation on climate change. 

Main image credit: Sunrise Movement on Twitter

Kevin is a contributor and strategic adviser to DeSmog. He runs the digital marketing agency Spake Media House. Named a “Green Hero” by Rolling Stone Magazine and one of the “Top 50 Tweeters” on climate change and environment issues, Kevin has appeared in major news media outlets around the world for his work on digital campaigning. Kevin has been involved in the public policy arena in both the United States and Canada for more than a decade. For five years he was the managing editor of DeSmogBlog.com. In this role, Kevin’s research into the “climate denial industry” and the right-wing think tank networks was featured in news media articles around the world. He is most well known for his ground-breaking research into David and Charles Koch’s massive financial investments in the Republican and tea party networks. Kevin is the first person to be designated a “Certified Expert” on the political and community organizing platform NationBuilder. Prior to DeSmog, Kevin worked in various political and government roles. He was Senior Advisor to the Minister of State for Multiculturalism and a Special Assistant to the Minister of State for Asia Pacific, Foreign Affairs for the Government of Canada. Kevin also worked in various roles in the British Columbia provincial government in the Office of the Premier and the Ministry of Health. In 2008 Kevin co-founded a groundbreaking new online election tool called Vote for Environment which was later nominated for a World Summit Award in recognition of the world’s best e-Content and innovative ICT applications. Kevin moved to Washington, DC in 2010 where he worked for two years as the Director of Online Strategy for Greenpeace USA and has since returned to his hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

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