The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by the Senate, now awaiting the House vote and President Trump’s signature, produced a mixed result as far as leading environmental advocates are concerned.
First, the package, the largest in U.S. history, will bring much-needed aid that families, small businesses, health-care providers and state and local governments need to combat the economic malaise from COVID-19. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, roundly praised the bill’s priority on these efforts.
But, secondarily, they and others consider the environmental factors within the bill a wash: President Trump sought, but was denied, a move to add to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, while another key point in the negotiations, tying airline emissions to the relief granted that industry was not part of the final deal.
Environmental groups stressed in press releases their desire that further stimulus packages push for a more sustainable economy and a cleaner energy future.
For airlines, the package includes $25 billion in direct grants and up to another $25 billion in loans or loan guarantees to struggling passenger and cargo carriers. Airlines would have to avoid layoffs “to the extent practicable,” and would be required to keep at least 90% of current employment levels.
Ahead of the final Senate bill, eight Democrats had signed a letter saying that any aid to airlines (and they included cruise ships in the same letter) should come with conditions requiring carriers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions over time. This stipulation was not part of the final Senate bill. Air travel has grown as a contributor to man-made accelerated global warming. While aviation still accounts for less than 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, those emissions are expected to triple by 2050 as tourism and travel expand, the lawmakers noted in their letter.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration had aimed to give a lift to the struggling U.S. energy industry, hit as the coronavirus sapped global demand for fuel, by buying oil
to fill up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or SPR. The U.S. is fighting to maintain dominance over competitive rivals Saudi Arabia and Russia, which some energy experts say will position Americans to better negotiate on emissions and other policy choices, and could boost national security.
Trump’s plan, forwarded earlier this month, would have allowed the federal government to purchase up to 92 million barrels, enough to buy the entire output of Texas in approximately 18 days, the Washington Post reported. The SPR currently holds 635 million barrels but can store as much as 727 million barrels. Buying oil in an emergency rather than selling it runs contrary to the original purpose of the stockpile, which was created by President Gerald Ford in 1975 as a response to the Arab oil embargo. Thus, the Trump proposal remained a controversial would-be feature of the relief bill and ultimately was not included.
“Congress has taken a step in the right direction by prioritizing people over corporations in this relief package. With the help of our supporters, we successfully removed $3 billion in direct handouts to Big Oil,” said environmental advocacy group 350.org North America Director Tamara Toles O’Laughlin.
“There is no going back to ‘business-as-usual’ after this pandemic. We need a reboot. Congress must prioritize real climate action that creates millions of jobs, sustains families, responds to systemic inequity,” she added.
As work continued toward the eventual relief package, several high-profile environmental advocates continued to emphasis what they see as an opportunity to rethink a greener U.S. economy that promotes renewable energy and takes other steps.
They penned an eight-point $2 trillion proposal and posted it as an open letter to Congress: A Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy. They want the prep work done now to make environmental projects shovel-ready when the worst of the coronavirus’s clampdown on the economy has passed.
Their effort is not a complete rewrite of the Democratic-led Green New Deal framework of last year, a proposal meant to slow the effects of man-made climate change that has languished so far in a divided Congress. Instead, the new effort folds in expanded ideas from organizations, private companies and academics, and keeps a few of the proposals from the Democrats who have dropped out of the 2020 presidential contest, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and known environmental champion Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington.