The Democratic lawmaker tapped to lead a revived House of Representatives panel on climate change dismissed calls to bar members who accept money from fossil fuel companies from serving on the committee, arguing it would violate free speech rights.
In an interview with E&E News, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) confirmed incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked her to chair a long-defunct select committee on global warming.
Despite weeks of protests demanding Democrats focus efforts on drafting a Green New Deal, the sort of sweeping economic policy scientists say matches the scale of the climate crisis, Castor said the plan was “not going to be our sole focus.”
She then suggested that barring members who have accepted donations from the oil, gas and coal industries from serving on the committee could be unconstitutional.
“I don’t think you can do that under the First Amendment, really,” she said.
That reasoning echoes arguments Exxon Mobil Corp. made in court as recently as this year to defend its funding of right-wing think tanks that deliberately produced misinformation about climate science to stymie government action on global warming.
In an interview with HuffPost on Thursday evening, Castor walked back her earlier statement, calling it an “inartful answer.”
But she said she did not know whether, as chairperson, she could bar members on the committee from serving if they accepted fossil fuel donations.
“Maybe that’s a discussion we need to have in the caucus,” she said.
Asked if she accepted money from fossil fuel companies, Castor said, “I cannot think of a contribution from an oil company or fossil fuel company, but I cannot say without going back and with a fine-toothed comb that there wasn’t something in the past.”
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Castor accepted more than $73,000 from the energy and natural resources sector over her 12-year tenure in Congress, including $60,000 from corporate political action committees.
She said she would consider taking the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, a vow overseen by a handful of progressive groups including proponents of a Green New Deal. Asked what the decision hinged on, Castor said, “I don’t know.”
“We’re at year-end with a possible shutdown and I think the important thing is looking at folks for the committee who are ready to serve,” she said.
The restoration of the select committee on climate change puts an end to a month-long effort to replace it with a panel focused specifically on crafting a Green New Deal, an umbrella term for a suite of policies that would include shifting the United States to 100 percent renewable energy over the next decade and guaranteeing high-wage, federally backed jobs to workers in outmoded industries.
The proposal stormed into mainstream political debate over the past month after protesters from the progressive groups Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats held sit-ins in Pelosi’s office. The demonstrations came in response to what they saw as plans for a tepid response to the climate crisis when the party takes control of the House next month.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a left-wing firebrand with a powerful online following, joined the protests and proposed swapping Pelosi’s plan to restore the climate select committee with a plan for a panel devoted to the Green New Deal.
For a few weeks, it seemed likely to happen. More than 40 incoming or sitting House Democrats pledged to support the resolution, and nearly half a dozen senators announced their support for the effort, including at least three likely 2020 presidential contenders.
But the proposal ruffled feathers in Washington. Incoming chairmen of committees that traditionally oversee energy and environmental policy complained that a Green New Deal select committee would strip them of legislative power. And Beltway veterans privately expressed frustration that a cadre of insurgent freshmen, some of whom toppled long-time allies in primaries, were using their grassroots popularity to call shots.
Democratic leaders responded in kind, declining to contact activists or Ocasio-Cortez before announcing plans to ignore the resolution and restore the previous climate select committee instead.
Representatives from Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats confirmed they were not told of the decision until they read about it on E&E News. Castor said she “chatted with Rep.-elect Ocasio-Cortez, but not specifically on this.”
In a statement, Sunrise Movement said a select committee “that makes a plan for implementing a Green New Deal is an opportunity for Democrats in the House.”
“As Pelosi and Castor share more about the committee’s mandate and goals, we hope that they will use this opportunity to make a real plan to transform our economy in line with that the science demands, and create millions of good jobs in the process,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement.
Earlier this week, Democratic leaders announced that a Green New Deal select committee would lack subpoena power, seemingly sounding the death knell for the resolution.
Castor said the select committee she agreed to chair would likely have subpoena power, but not legislative power. She said she did not know yet which individuals or companies she would use that power to investigate.
“It’s infuriating to see a fellow Democrat basically parrot the talking points of the Koch Brothers when it comes to the very common-sense idea that any politician who accepts donations from the fossil-fuel corporations should not be allowed to legislate on climate change,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group championing the Green New Deal proposal.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.