Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Robert Menendez

Sen. Robert Menendez.

In the Senate debate over the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act last month, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) stood out as one of the most vocal advocates for making polluters pay to emit greenhouse gases rather than giving them free carbon credits. He also spoke up about the need to spend more on clean technology and help developing countries adapt to climate shifts.

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Menendez floated a handful of proposed amendments to the climate legislation, but didn’t get a chance to introduce them before the bill stalled out. One amendment, cowritten with fellow New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, would have increased funding for renewable energy and hastened the transition to 100 percent auction of carbon credits. Another amendment, coauthored with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), would have increased funding to halt deforestation, and a third would have boosted near-term funding for international adaptation; both of these would have been paid for by reducing assistance for fossil-fuel industries.

Menendez, who has served on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee since joining the U.S. Senate two and a half years ago, has become increasingly active on climate and energy issues. Grist recently talked to the senator about the lessons learned from the Lieberman-Warner debate and how he thinks climate legislation should play out in the future.

Grist: What was your takeaway from the debate over the Climate Security Act?

Menendez: The reality is I think we’ve made progress. Increasingly we have less of Sen. [James] Inhofe’s [R-Okla.] view that [climate change] is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated upon the American people. It’s more of a recognition that there is a challenge — the challenge is more urgent and needs to be addressed. I think that moves us forward. The number of votes that were received gives you a good foundation to build on, and what I expect will be a more robust ability to pursue this next year in Congress, and hopefully with a new administration.

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I still think there’s work to be done. While I certainly supported the bill for the purposes of moving forward, I do believe that we have to do a better job of emphasizing the deployment of renewables and energy efficiency. I do believe emissions-reduction targets should be science-based. I do believe that we need a prompt transition to a polluter-pays system. I think we need to provide targeted assistance to help those most in need.

Grist: You’re one of the senators who was leading the charge for a polluter-pays credit-allocation scheme. Why do you see that as a crucial element of climate legislation?

Menendez: Allocations given to polluters should quickly be phased out. Auctioning allowances is the fairest system and it provides incentives for developing cutting-edge technologies. We already have precedent for this under Superfund — at least we did, before this administration. It’s basically that polluter pays. It is part of corporate, societal, and global responsibility. In my mind that’s one of the principles I think average Americans can understand from their years in which they grew up. When I grew up, in my household, my mother had a very simple principle: You mess up, you clean up. That’s basically the same principle we’re talking about here. Those who polluted have to be responsible.

Grist: You were also one of the most vocal on the international issues involved in the climate legislation: advocating for a forest-protection amendment and for international-adaptation funding. What should be the role of these international programs in the climate bill?

Menendez: I think we need a well-funded effort to protect rainforests. My amendment that I would have offered would have increased funding for forest protection from what existed in the bill. I think [we need] a program to help vulnerable nations adapt to the effects of climate change, and we would have increased that funding. Also, [we need] a mechanism to deploy clean technologies in the developing world, including technology transfer — something I was working with Sens. [Joe] Biden [D-Del.] and [Dick] Lugar [R-Ind.] on.

These are important because at the end of the day, global warming is just that — it is a global challenge. We [need to bring] others along who can provide some of the greatest carbon sinks that we have in the world. [We should help] nations that through no actions of their own are going to receive the greatest effects of climate change, [and] at the same time, mitigate some of the security challenges as a result thereof.

Grist: Those who oppose climate action often complain that we can’t do anything unless India and China are on board.

Menendez: I think that if you lead, then others will follow. It’s interesting to note, for example, that we’re going to the Olympics in China this summer, and I’m rooting for the American team to walk away with the greatest number of medals. But there’s one we will already lose, and that is their fuel efficiency in cars is higher that the standard we set in the United States.

The question is, do we move them along as vigorously as possible to join in that effort? Or do we simply take the view that unless they do everything that we do, nobody moves forward? To believe that of China and India is a mistake that only lets us continue in the death spiral that we’re in.

Grist: It seems that the Senate is stuck in a lock on energy policy, even though energy prices are all anybody talks about. Do you see a way of breaking this deadlock any time soon?

Menendez: There’s already 68 million acres under federal lease to the oil industry that they’re simply sitting on and not pursuing exploration. The reason it’s leased to them is because it clearly has oil deposits or natural-gas deposits. The reality is they’re not pursuing that. You have to wonder when Big Oil pushes relentlessly for more and more land and water to drill on, even while they sit on 68 million acres that they have yet to use, whether or not they are just exploiting the oil crisis to expand their reserves on the books in order to inflate their share price. That’s just not good policy.

Grist: What about the legislation to extend tax credits for renewable energy, which has been held up in the Senate repeatedly? New Jersey is a leader in solar energy, and having these tax credits hanging in the balance is a big problem for the industry. What do you think is going to happen with this?

Menendez: Even the industries that the Republicans seem to be in bed with are clamoring for the extension of those credits. I think [Republicans] run an enormous risk by saying, “Yes, we want to diversify our energy portfolio, yes, we want renewables,” but at the same time not supporting the extension of existing credits so that these can move forward with the sense of long-term commitment by the U.S. government and the ability to commercialize these energy sources in a way that make it feasible to bring to the marketplace. I have to believe that that’s going to move because we’re not even talking about creating new credits — we’re talking about extending. That’s why they’re called extenders. That means they had the support of Republicans before.

Grist: What do think should be the top environmental priorities for the Senate next year?

Menendez: Well, I certainly hope that global climate change is one. I think that’s incredibly important.

I also think concurrent with that we’re going to continuously face this gas challenge. We had testimony under oath from oil industry executives who said that supply and demand over the last two years have been basically the same. Therefore the difference between where oil is today and where it should be is about $50 to $80 worth per barrel of speculation. It seems to me that moving toward a regulatory process on speculation is incredibly important.

Thirdly, I think [we need to work on] preserving our natural resources. Our natural resources have been under attack under this administration, and preserving that is incredibly important to me. Part of preserving and enhancing would be returning to the polluter-pays principle of Superfund so we can clean up sites that presently lie fallow.

We’re also going to have the next major federal transportation bill, which will hopefully have a growing emphasis on mass transit that can be part of dealing both with the challenges of gas prices as well as with the challenges of emissions by having high-speed, clean, and efficient mass transit.