Environmental Groups Use COVID-19 To Lobby For Climate Agenda

Environmental Groups
League of Conservation Voters.

In the build up to Congress passing legislation to support the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous environmental groups spent big lobbying lawmakers and the administration to block any federal support for the nation’s oil and natural industry and to use the crisis to push for climate policies.

According to a Western Wire review, activist groups sought everything from a halt to new oil and natural gas leasing on public lands, to opposition to royalty relief, and energy development on the tribal lands outside of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

At the same time, as Congress appropriated trillions of dollars in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the “CARES Act,” many groups attempted to seize on to these spending bills to promote clean energy policies that are designed for long-term transformations.

A lobbying disclosure from the League of Conservation Voters shows one of the nation’s top environmental groups took aim at the energy industry with policies preferences including “Urge DOI [Department of the Interior] to suspend major policy changes, oil and gas lease sales, and public comment periods” and opposing “royalty relief for extractive industries during the COVID-19 crisis.”

In total, LCV spent $70,000 lobbying Congress during the first three months of 2020, when the coronavirus was spreading across the nation.

As part of its lobbying, on March 20th, LCV and a dozen other groups sent a letter to congressional leaders demanding oil and natural gas producers be excluded from any stimulus package. They wrote, “Further government support for the fossil fuel industry, which already receives approximately $13 billion annually in subsidies, should be no part of a COVID-19 economic recovery package, other than direct support to workers.”

As an alternative, the group joined Clean Water Action, Earthjustice, and Sierra Club to petition that stimulus funding “should explicitly help transition those industries to a clean energy future to both reduce toxic air and water pollution immediately and cut carbon pollution as well.”

LCV’s legislative director, Matthew Davis, told E&E News, “We think it’s important to focus funding and programs in those places that help address these other ongoing crises, like climate change and environmental injustice, and in the businesses and the workers who are helping lead those fights.”

Among the climate policies it supported, LCV sought support for a tax credit for alternative fuel vehicles during the crisis despite the fact that Americans are driving much less, and that market still requires decades of development.

“Support the Driving America Forward Act, which would expand the electric vehicle and hydrogen fuel cell tax credit, and proposals to make them refundable or allow direct pay, at least during the COVID-19 crisis and recovery,” its disclosure read.

Joining a chorus of groups opposed to providing relief for energy companies operating federal lands was The Sierra Club, which opposed royalty relief along with LCV. The group also lobbied for a number of different renewable energy and clean economy bills.

A top official for The Sierra Club told In These Times that it was advocating for greater government support of clean energy companies in the COVID-19 response while calling for conditions to be placed on any company that uses fossil fuels and receives support.

In the first quarter, The Sierra Club spent $150,000 on lobbying, according to the organization’s report.

In the days following the pressure from environmental groups, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on April 6th opposing royalty relief for oil and natural gas producers.

Chairman Grijalva, along with 15 Democratic members of Congress, said, “We write to remind you of the tight legal restrictions that exist on unilateral action in this area and urge you to ignore fossil fuel producer requests for special favors at taxpayer expense.”

Grijalva’s colleague and the chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, similarly sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in the days following petitions from environmental groups. His focus was on halting the agency’s public comment periods related to oil and gas projects.

Seventy Democratic members of Congress joined him in the letter, stating, “The Department of Interior must ensure it protects the public’s right to participate in the operations of their government while it continues to comply with statutory and judicial requirements during this national emergency. We urge you to immediately extend and protect public comment periods by taking the actions stated in this letter.”

Lobbying against the oil and natural gas development over the past few months was also the focus of The Wilderness Society. As lawmakers were grappling with the coronavirus sweeping across the nation, the group lobbied for the End Speculative Oil and Gas Leasing Act of 2020, a bill introduced by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) aimed at undercutting public leasing, and the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act would restrict oil and gas development in New Mexico.

Western Wire has previously covered the opposition from the Navajo Nation’s tribal council opposition to that legislation which would bar development where members own mineral rights.

The Wilderness Society joined dozens of other environmental groups, including Earthworks and the Western Values Project, in signing a letter to congressional leaders opposing economic relief for the uranium industry.

The Wilderness Society spent $37,000 to lobby Congress in the first quarter, according to its disclosure report.

Other groups without paid lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. nonetheless tried to influence the debate through the media and public forums.

The Sunrise Movement argued the CARES Act should have included the Green New Deal. Western Wire recently covered the group’s demand that Joe Biden embrace the policy as part of his presidential campaign.

350.org joined other activist groups in proposing a “Just Recovery” from COVID-19 that including a call that “corporations that are exacerbating the climate crisis cannot be bailed out.”

In the early legislative push to address industries suffering from lack of consumer demand, the Environmental Defense Fund encouraged an ultimately failed effort from several Democrats to require airlines to reduce emissions before they received any federal financial assistance. A company representative told E&E News, “So if they’re going to get this kind of cash, it’s important to have some climate strings attached to it.”

EDF’s Action Fund spent between $185,000-$190,000 lobbying between January and March, according to its disclosure reports.

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