President Biden’s climate agenda will depend on this powerful N.J. congressman

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. spent his first years as chairman of a powerful House committee largely playing defense against President Donald Trump’s efforts to expand oil drilling. Now he’ll get to lead an offense with President Joe Biden calling the plays.

Pallone’s House Energy and Commerce Committee is Ground Zero for Biden’s efforts to deliver an economy with net-zero emissions by 2050, including moving to renewable energy from fossil fuels, and to reduce health care costs by strengthening the existing law. And with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate in addition to the White House, some of those initiatives could make it into law.

“It’s a huge change or sea change,” Pallone told NJ Advance Media. “You have a president who believes in science, who says we have to take climate action and wants to take the lead on climate action globally. You have leaders in the Senate who want to get things done and want to make a difference in people’s lives.”

“It’s a tremendous opportunity that we have. That’s why I first ran for Congress, because I wanted to make a difference. And now there’s a real opportunity that hasn’t been there before.”

And the effort on climate change will be led by someone with a 96% lifetime rating

EditSign from the League of Conservation Voters.

“Congressman Pallone is a strong leader on important environmental issues and making sure we’re moving aggressively to meet the challenge,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

“It’s exciting for our state. It’s going to be hard work. He faces probably the biggest test of his career to get a bold climate plan together. We will be working with him and pushing him to be as bold as possible because there’s no time for half measures.”

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 said the impacts of climate change were worse than originally thought, and some environmentalists said that put more pressure on Pallone to act aggressively.

“He holds a singularly important position in Congress,” said Matthew Smith, state director of Food & Water Action. “He does bear increased responsibility in his position to really articulate policy prescriptions that are in line with what the science is requiring of us.”

Biden’s 2050 goal matches the one set by Pallone’s own Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s Future Act — or Clean Future Act — for a 100% clean economy. That’s two decades behind the Green New Deal’s 2030 deadline.

In the 2020 Democratic primaries, both Biden and Pallone defeated opponents who criticized them for not embracing the Green New Deal, the policy guidelines proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., that would provide a more radical solution to climate change.

Pallone said it’s a question of what’s possible, given the fact that Democrats have only 50 votes in the Senate and one of them is Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state whose economy is dependent on fossil fuels.

“To me, the Green New Deal is very similar to the Clean Future Act but as an accelerated case,” Pallone said. “It is really saying we want to do this quickly. If I can move it up to 2030 and get the votes to do it, obviously I would. It’s an issue of what we can do.”

Still, Ted Glick, president of the environmental group 350 New Jersey/Rockland, said he would like to ask Pallone: “If you had been a congressperson back in the ’30s, would you have opposed FDR’s New Deal?

“The big issue for anyone who calls himself a climate leader is a question of ambition and leadership,” he said.

And the clean energy standards in Pallone’s bill still would allow fossil fuels such as natural gas, according to a report by Friends of the Earth.

“Chairman Pallone needs to do better,” said Lukas Ross, program manager for the environmental group. “A clean energy standard that allows for natural gas isn’t climate leadership. It’s climate surrender.”

Pallone said he would reintroduce his bill and hold hearings on his legislation and on climate change in general. And he said he could see elements incorporated into an infrastructure bill that Biden has talked about tackling after passing the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus legislation.

Elements like improving energy efficiency, improving the energy grid or cleaning up brownfields could be added to such legislation, Pallone said. And he has called for a permanent ban on oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, removing the threat to the Jersey Shore and the state’s tourism industry. Right now the area is off limits through 2022.

Because Pallone represents a coastal district, he is constantly reminded of the impact of climate change, Potosnak said. “There’s probably not as many congressional districts that are impacted as much as Frank Pallone’s,” Potosnak said. “It’s a reminder of how aggressive and bold we need to be to combat climate change.”