Climate, Environment Stories Abound in COVID-19 Rescue Bill

April 8, 2020
Efforts to tie aid for airlines to cuts in carbon emissions were not part of the $2 trillion stimulus measure, but they are likely to be raised for future stimulus measures. Photo: Kent Wien, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Climate, Environment Stories Abound in COVID-19 Rescue Bill

By Joseph A. Davis

Whoever said “Never waste a good crisis” (Rahm Emmanuel? Winston Churchill? Niccolò Machiavelli?) may have been right. While the nation melts down in a coronavirus crisis, there are still big climate change-related energy developments that need to be reported. 

So far, however, when it comes to energy (whether dirty or clean), the pandemic has not been good.  The $2 trillion “stimulus” bill enacted March 27, for instance, disappointed green energy industries, lacking many of the provisions they had sought to get a grip on climate-warming carbon emissions. 

Still, opportunities are arising for renewables. Understanding the green energy wish list will help any journalist cover the next expected stimulus (subscription required).


Why it matters

Green stimulus issues are important because … well, for starters because this crisis may well transform the U.S. economy and infrastructure in profound ways, ways we both intend and don’t intend.

Not only do people’s lives and health depend on it, people’s jobs and economic welfare also do. 


The consequences of climate change 

are as grave and pervasive as ever — 

even if they do not seem as urgent

while we are distracted by the pandemic.


And the consequences of climate change on the planet and its people are as grave and pervasive as ever — even if they do not seem as urgent while we are distracted by the pandemic.


The backstory

We know what the wish list is because of all the lobbying and agitation that have gone into legislation up until now. 

The grand visions of the Green New Deal (and the blander visions of moderate House Democrats) have not advanced far in concrete legislative terms, and seem to lack the momentum to go the distance in this session of Congress. 

But the story is not over.

The wish list includes at least the following:

  • Tax Extenders. As renewables and clean energy grew stronger in the marketplace, it was partly because of a complex array of tax breaks that gave people and companies economic incentives to go green. There were a lot of them. People are familiar with the tax credits for electric vehicles. Many of those expired March 31. Another was the “production tax credit,” which gives companies more incentive to build wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy projects. This, too, has been phasing out, but many in those industries and Congress want to extend green energy tax credits. Efforts to tuck extenders into the $2 trillion stimulus bill failed. Watch for a new effort in the next stimulus — this time as a jobs measure.
  • Airlines. Whatever happened, hard-hit airlines seemed a good bet to get aid out of the $2 trillion stimulus. And they will. Democrats and environmentalists wanted to make that aid conditional on efforts (subscription required) by airlines to reduce their carbon emissions. They failed this time, but will surely try again the next time.
  • Infrastructure. It’s a word with many meanings, but most include highways and transit. Before the virus hit, a highway bill seemed poised for a traditional election-year shoo-in. For a lot of reasons, it hasn’t passed yet. But it could. There was talk of adding it to the last stimulus. And with subsequent Democratic moves, it seemed possible for other forms of infrastructure (e.g., pork-barrel-ly water projects (subscription required)) to be included in such a package. Moreover, even President Trump has begun flirting with the idea. When the nation starts looking for economic rebuilding, these could be winners.
  • Oil Industry. The oil (and gas) industry was dealt a double blow at the time of the outbreak. Not only did the economic freeze caused by the virus lead to slack demand and inventory gluts, but Saudi Arabia simultaneously launched an oil price war against Russia and the United States. Devastation resulted in the already sick industry, with crude prices now struggling to stay above $20 per barrel. Naturally, oil sought a bailout in the stimulus and, surprisingly, it didn’t get all it wanted. The bill lacked funding for federal purchases of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, only a small salve on a deep economic wound. But the industry will get other goodies from the administration and will try again (may require subscription).
  • Other Environmental Aid. If you look, you will find many other environmental issues in coronavirus bailout legislation. The $2 trillion bill included some $300 million in aid (subscription required) for the hard-hit fisheries industry (a haul of potential regional stories). Agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department got budget boosts (subscription required) that may help them do their jobs better. The bill also unlocked as much as $1.76 billion in revenue for water projects (subscription required). Clean water funding, electric grid infrastructure and rural broadband could also (subscription required) find a place on the next bill.


Reporting resources

It will probably be challenging for outside-the-Beltway reporters to closely track what’s next in COVID-19 rescue legislation. Actually, it will be hard for everyone. A few simple suggestions.

  • Read the actual text of the actual bill — a beast. The text of the bill as enacted can be found here. When you find something you don’t understand, ask someone in Congress or their staff to explain it.
  • Read the specialized media that report on what’s happening in Washington. While these often require subscriptions, some of their best material is outside the paywall. That might include E&E News, Bloomberg Environment, Bloomberg Green and The Hill.
  • Ask policy experts and lobbyists working in areas that interest you about coronavirus-legislation impacts. Think environmental groups, industry groups, congressional staff, etc.
  • Talk to people in your community about what problems the virus crisis has presented, and what the government has done or could do to help them. 

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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