Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the incoming top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, is “disappointed” with President Biden’s first-week executive actions targeting the fossil fuel industry, but that won’t deter her from cooperating with Democrats on combating climate change.
“I don't feel like being in a pivotal position, my only role is to say no and throw rocks. Hopefully, I won't get too discouraged,” Capito said Monday in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
Biden has pleased liberal activists and angered Republicans in his first days, fulfilling promises such as reentering the Paris Agreement, rejecting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and effectively putting a freeze on new oil and gas leasing and permitting on federal lands.
Eyeing an infrastructure deal
But Biden is expected next month to turn to Republicans when he introduces an infrastructure bill that will include investments in clean energy and electric vehicle charging stations.
If Biden wants bipartisan support for aspects of his climate agenda, he’ll likely need the backing of Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, a major fossil-fuel state, who has dealt with Democrats on emissions reduction measures.
Capito is a member of a new bipartisan group of senators called the “Sweet 16” that has been negotiating with the Biden administration on its coronavirus relief bill.
She said she has a “very good relationship” with Democrat Tom Carper, the incoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Carper, a close friend of Biden from his home state of Delaware, was born in West Virginia.
“The first thing we should aim toward at the committee is the infrastructure bill,” Capito said. “President Biden has talked about job creation, and that is the natural place to go.”
But Capito wants Democrats to use a bipartisan surface transportation bill that her committee approved last year as the basis of negotiations, a possibility that seems remote now that Democrats control the Senate and White House.
That bill, which Carper co-authored with outgoing GOP Chairman John Barrasso, included the first-ever “title” to address climate change, authorizing $10.8 billion over five years on various measures designed to reduce emissions from transportation, the highest-emitting sector.
It also has incentives for building more electric vehicle charging infrastructure, a priority for Biden, who has promised to build 500,000 such charging stations.
“I am concerned about going back to square one because we pulled together a very substantial bill,” Capito said.
While Capito said some clean energy in infrastructure legislation can be “well placed and acceptable,” she’s worried Biden might pursue something more like House Democrats’ infrastructure package, the “Lift American Act,” that was more like “a climate bill with a little transportation thrown in it.”
“They are always overreaching,” Capito said of Democrats. “I am hoping they moderate to the point we can have bipartisan buy-in.”
Carper told the Washington Examiner he "looks forward" to working with Capito.
“I’m proud of my good relationship with Sen. Capito," Carper said. "As chairman of EPW, I want to build on the bipartisan surface transportation bill that we reported out of committee unanimously and make it even better."
Capito is no partisan warrior
She’s been at the forefront of the congressional GOP’s attempt to shift its messaging on climate change to acknowledge the issue as a problem best solved through private sector development of clean energy technologies.
Capito co-sponsored various pieces of bipartisan legislation that have recently become law, including expanding tax subsidies for technologies that can capture carbon from fossil fuel plants and investing in research on machines, which she calls “giant vacuum cleaners,” that could swipe carbon directly from the air.
These technologies, which are not widely deployed, could be lifesavers for her state, where coal still provides more than 90% of electricity even as natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale formation is expanding.
Open to new regulations
Capito said that retirements of coal plants, struggling to keep pace with cheaper gas and renewables, are “inevitable,” but she said she hopes the Biden administration appreciates technological advancements when it proposes new regulations for power plants.
“Is [coal] ever going to go back to where it was? No,” Capito said, adding that former President Donald Trump’s deregulatory efforts had a “steadying” effect.
A federal appeals court this month gave Biden a blank slate to write stricter carbon controls for power plants by rejecting the Trump Environmental Protection Agency’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, its weaker carbon standards for power plants that replaced Obama-era climate regulations known as the Clean Power Plan.
Capito said she’s optimistic the Biden EPA could reach a compromise between those two proposals.
“We are stuck in a no man’s land right now,” said Capito, whose committee has oversight of the EPA. “Do I think there is something in between? Absolutely.”
Capito also said she could support the EPA imposing direct regulation of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas.
“The natural gas industry grew so rapidly with these discoveries, we need to catch up here. If that's what we need to do in terms of methane regulation, OK, I am willing to take a look at it,” Capito said.
Skeptical of Biden personnel and promises
But Capito suggested that Biden’s early moves on climate, taken before the Senate has confirmed his nominees to lead key energy and environmental agencies, has the fingerprints of his domestic climate policy “czar,” Gina McCarthy.
Capito is “deeply concerned” about McCarthy, who authored the Clean Power Plan and helped develop Obama-era regulations meant to reduce the amount of air pollution emitted by coal power plants, known as mercury and air toxics rule, or MATS, that Republicans blame for accelerating the decline of coal.
“The transparency issue needs to be addressed here,” Capito said. “Those who are in charge were front and center in the last administration where I saw the culling out of my entire state.”
That history makes Capito “skeptical” of promises by Biden and Democrats to invest in fossil fuel-dependent states and communities as it seeks to transition the economy to cleaner energy.
“They have got to prove that to me,” said Capito, adding she would “welcome” investments in clean energy to West Virginia. “I am not saying I want to stay where we are [with fossil fuels]. I am not putting my head in the sand here. I just want us to be a part of the solution rather than just dumped out.”
Pondering the future of fossil fuels
Biden has signaled he wants to include some level of fossil fuels as part of his goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning the United States would balance emissions with measures that take pollution out of the atmosphere through actions such as carbon capture.
Capito, however, said she opposes setting a net-zero emissions target unless Biden can more specifically define what it means for fossil fuels.
“You've got to tell America what a net emission policy looks like. In my mind, it means development of fossil fuels and offset with something,” Capito said.
But Capito, sensitive to being boxed in as a fossil fuel zealot, said she is willing to consider comprehensive climate policies such as carbon pricing or a clean electricity standard, depending on how they are structured.