A new report released in October 2017 from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned of mounting costs to the federal government from extreme weather and forest fires. Such events have cost the government more than USD$350 billion over the last decade, and are projected to increase as the climate changes. Just as the report was released, Congress approved USD$36 billion for communities affected by hurricanes and wild fires over the last couple of months.
Host Bill Loveless speaks with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) about: the new GAO report and the need to prepare for growing future financial outlays as a result of extreme weather; the prospect for more cooperation between Democrats and Republicans on issues related to disasters and the federal budgets; and the outlook for Congressional action on other energy policy issues including opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
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Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to the Colombia Energy Exchange, a podcast from the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Colombia University. From Washington, I’m Bill Loveless. Bridging political differences in Washington seems as difficult as ever, especially on controversial issues like climate change. So when you find two like minds from different political parties, you tend to take notice. That’s the story with a new report warning of enormous cost to the U.S. government from extreme weather and forest fires.
The findings from the government accountability office say such events have cost the government more than $350 billion over the last decade and are likely to be even more expensive as the climate changes. The report was requested by senators Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee and Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine.
With the devastating Hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, not to mention wild fires in the Western U.S. still fresh in our minds, I sat down with Senator Cantwell at her office on Capitol Hill to discuss the report and whether the conservers are wakeup call in congress, where most democrats and republicans are still sharply divided over climate change. As we spoke congress was on the verge of approving some $36 billion in disaster relief in response to these recent events, on top of $15 billion provided earlier this fall. And that number is expected to go even higher. Senator Cantwell, welcome to the Colombia Energy Exchange.
Maria Cantwell: Thank you Bill.
Bill Loveless: It’s such a busy time here on the Hill right now. I know you’ve been as busy as you’ve ever been I think even all that’s going on right now. So we really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us and talk to us today.
Maria Cantwell: Thank you. It is a busy time -- lots of important things to fight for and a very long list to also fight against.
Bill Loveless: When we were chatting before and I have to bring this up. You were saying -- we were talking about the Colombia Energy Exchange and you were mentioning that back in your home state of Washington that might have a very different meaning.
Maria Cantwell: We’re a hydro state and we’ve had very cheap electricity for a long time. So if you said to somebody or you're doing an interview on the Colombia Energy Exchange, I guarantee you they would think it’s a co-op of farmers who have gotten together to maximize our electricity rates and do something interesting with them. But we’re also glad that it’s a worldwide audience. So we get to talk to them today.
Bill Loveless: Well, it’s an interesting time and this has been a stunting year for natural disasters in the United States with hurricanes in Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico and wildfires ravaging parts of the west. And questions increasingly are raised over the extent to which climate change contributes to the severity of these events and also to the cost of these events. And you and senator Susan Collins of Maine, Republican Senator for Maine requested as report some two years ago looking at the cost of natural disasters to the U.S. government. The results are just in, seems very timely that you're getting those results right now. What did they tell you?
Maria Cantwell: Well, it is a little serendipitous that it’s coming at a week when we’re seeing a supplemental to deal with fire and flood and hurricane impacts that definitely in the end will probably be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, that this two year project also came to a culmination. And Senator Collins of Maine and I had been I guess likeminded in the past congress and really almost going back eight or nine years ago that we saw the impacts to our state and thought that there are probably better management strategies. But we haven’t really gotten our colleagues to join in on that.
So that’s when we said, well, let’s get somebody who’s a little bit more just independent. Let’s get the Government Accountability Office kind of in just, if you will, look at the numbers and try to give us an estimate about what this impact is to the Federal Government. We hope that we did that, then our colleagues would say, oh, let’s try to tackle this and let’s do some things to help mitigate these costs for the future.
Bill Loveless: Right. And I want to get to that in a few minutes. But in terms of the numbers you’ve heard back from a GAO, they would rather startling, I think of some $350 billion in cost to the Federal Government from extreme weather and fire events over the last decade potentially increasing by $35 billion a year by 2050. And maybe those a low estimates, I don’t know.
Maria Cantwell: Well, startling is one word. I would say staggering because literally staggering means that we as a government are going to spend a trillion dollars or more on things that we may have been able to mitigate or change that would not put that bill at the tax payers’ expense. So that’s money that could go to a lot of different things whether it’s education or healthcare or reducing the tax burden overall, a variety of things. So the notion that we now know from independent organizations within the Federal Government that it’s really costing us this much money, it means let’s be serious about this. This isn’t about politics. This is about physical policy and really getting serious about trying to mitigate it.
Bill Loveless: Were you surprised at all by the numbers?
Maria Cantwell: I was surprised. Let me just say I have seen impacts in our state and we know what flooding and drought and fire and just even 1 degree temperature change on snowpack again, because we’re a hydro system, can make a big impact for us. But I still didn’t expect to see these numbers that we’re saying now.
And what I guess maybe is the surprise is, it’s here sooner than I thought. So that worries me because if we’re looking at hundreds of millions right now -- I’m sorry hundreds of billions right now and this year a big number, then what does this mean if we don’t hurry up and start addressing the challenges that we face with better strategies?
Bill Loveless: And it comes at a time when the senate is considering legislation providing somewhat $34 billion just to recover -- just to respond to the most recent disasters in Puerto Rico.
Maria Cantwell: Yes, that number is a number that is for the ongoing recovery to keep it underway. It doesn’t even really scratch the surface or what it’s going to take to rebuild and repair from that. It is just the amount of dollars to keep the forest service fighting the fires, to keep FEMA working in Puerto Rico to keep things -- so isn’t really -- it’s a down payment if you will on the cost. So these numbers are going to be much bigger than.
And what the report shows is that we are seeing changes, more intense weather events. And if we don’t get a handle on what these intense weather events are like and what they’re capable of and plan better responses and better preparation, we’re going to see the same kind of numbers that we saw this year and in future years.
Bill Loveless: Does the report talk much about the extent to which climate change may contribute to these events or does it look specifically or solely at just simply the cost of these sorts of events?
Maria Cantwell: It’s looking at things that are, as I said intense. Basically the changes in climate of caused intense weather events which can be much more severe. It looks at the impact of, as I mentioned, drought. It looks at the impact of fire that basically hotter, warmer conditions and dryer conditions create more of an opportunity for fire to take place and so the volatility of that. So there is a lot of information that is a culmination of a lot of reports. But for the most part, it’s just adding up the cost. And for Susan Collins and I, I think we’ve been saying, look, let’s look at some ways to mitigate these cost.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. What did she think of report? Have you talked to her since the results came out and --?
Maria Cantwell: She was fascinated that it was such a thorough report on these numbers. And she like me, I think wants us to move forward on trying to do something that would help reduce this impact to the American people.
Bill Loveless: Your relationship with her on this topic goes back couple of -- several years, back to 2009. She and you co-sponsored legislation for global -- on greenhouse gas emission, say a cap and trade type of a bill.
Maria Cantwell: Cap and dividend.
Bill Loveless: Cap and dividend. What was the difference by the way between the cap and dividend and the cap and trade that’s also prevalent that time?
Maria Cantwell: After the Enron market manipulation, it’s hard to get me in the State of Washington very excited about trading schemes. I think what worked about that proposal was the notion that you would just take the top level of polluters and put them into a regime and work very hard to keep the rest of our economy whole and keep moving forward that you could use some of that to do the adaptation and mitigation. The low hanging fruit, you would start right away. So I think for us, it was a much more straight approach to making sure that the money really went were it was supposed to go and that in the early years, it really was reducing greenhouse gases.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. But you had been working -- it’s been not long since the two of you have been taken on this --?
Maria Cantwell: And we worked on the bill prior to that for Noah and climate related issues and adaption. So yes, we’ve been working for a long time trying to a really assess -- again, putting the politics aside or cost debate aside, just really trying to get our colleagues to see the fiscal impacts of this and get our agencies to plan better. So it maybe that Washington and Maine have been at the tip of this. I mean we certainly both have indicator events that we can point that we’ve to deal with. And I think if -- like in our case, we had to deal with the shellfish industry and ocean acidification. So we have the deal was specifics in your state, you become much more aware of the challenge.
Bill Loveless: But you mentioned that perhaps there's things that agencies could do. The GAO recommends that the White House use the information to identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses. But it comes at the time when President Trump seems to be doing the opposite of that. He’s reversed Obama administration policies that required government planning and accounting for climate change and taken other similar steps. What do you hope to accomplish with this report?
Maria Cantwell: Well, the saying all politics is local -- well, even with climate, it’s local and the local impacts to various agriculture industries, communities that have now seen weather events or flooding, like we’ve seen on the east coast or what we just saw in Florida. I think what we need to say to the White House is you need to protect the citizens of the United States both from the individual communities that are impacted and protect our pocket book by making sure that we’re doing the kind of proprietary and planning events that are going to help us best mitigate these cost. So while I’m sure they would like to talk about the global issues which are important, in reality, climate has become a very local issue. And how are we going to best defend our communities?
Bill Loveless: Yeah. And because the impacts of climate change are often greatest and in the southwest -- southeast rather -- southwest too, but the southeast parts of -- the Midwest areas where some members of congress and senators may not be as open to considering climate change legislation cap and trade, carbon tax, that kind of stuff, do you think that this sort of an issue might be something that does resonate with them that might be something they’d be willing act on with you and try to get more information from the government?
Maria Cantwell: Well, I can just give you one example in the central part of our state where we grow a lot of agriculture product, everything from apples and cherries and potatoes. We have had severe water issues and the community has tried to work this out, often time at loggerheads and what probably has been legal battles. And now they’ve looked at the data and information and said the way to get ahead is to collaborate and work together on holistic approaches to do -- to deal with water and lack of water and building capacity for the future.
So that was a strategy that the collaboration pay dividends and I would hope that our colleagues here would put aside whatever issues they have, whatever thoughts they have, work with their local communities to come up with strategies. So in the Midwest, it probably would be about agriculture and ways to mitigate. In the southeast, it might be about storm surge and capacity on their coastlines. And the Midwest fire -- I mean in the northwest I can guarantee you it’s about fire and making sure that we’re best prepared to protect our communities and lower the impact.
Bill Loveless: And so you think there might be sort of action -- at least on that level. Let’s get some good data from the government agencies on these events and the impact of them, the cost of them. Let’s at least start there without perhaps taking on some of the bigger issues.
Maria Cantwell: Exactly. We just filed the bill -- all of our northwest colleagues, Washington, Oregon and Idaho; so those are different states, different politics on something that was about a better strategy for reducing fuel and the pine forests and putting it into cost laminated timber, really exciting idea on new building material that we think will help stabilize some of our regional mills, but also help us come up with a better strategy to protect our communities. So that idea being supported across the board politically is an example of what can happen when you come together on those issues and come to the table and discuss them.
Bill Loveless: Have you heard at all from the Trump administration on this topic?
Maria Cantwell: No, not on our issues of this proposal. So, what I think that we have to obviously find out what is well, they are going to receive the report and help them to realize that science and the information that each region of a country needs are going to come from the Federal Government. So when we look at this issue, if you heed the report and you cut the science or cut the next steps forward on the research, you’re literally going to be taking resource and power away from communities to best deal with the crisis.
And I can tell you in the state of Washington, it doesn’t matter whether that community is a Republican community, a Democratic community -- in our state probably, a Libertarian community, they don’t care who is in charge. They want to be protected and they want a partner and they want somebody who’s going to come up with a strategy to help them mitigate these issues.
Bill Loveless: Looking at climate change more broadly though and perhaps to an extent that’s not -- it doesn’t provide much opportunity right now for congress to act, there have been -- and despite the positions taken by the Trump administrations, there are signs that more Republicans are paying attention. Senator Murkowski with whom you work very closely on the energy committee gave a speech the other day in which he said that climate change is real, demands leadership and partnership.
Senator Lindsey Graham recently -- of South Carolina recently called for a carbon price of some sort. And the number of Republicans on a Congressional Climate Task Force or caucus has been slowly increasing. Does any of this make much of a difference to you when you look across the aisle?
Maria Cantwell: Well, it does right now because I think these events are only going to increase with intensity. And so we need help. I mean this isn’t again about politics or saying okay, who’s been late to the party. This is about saying we have communities that are being impacted economically and we now have a report that just says the intensity of it is about to go up in significant ways.
So I need to be able to say to the citizens of Washington that I’m back here working on policies and strategies to be better protect them, to protect their livelihood and literally to protect their lives. And they have seen enough tragedy from these events. They have seen how catastrophic these events can become. I would say probably we’re big believers in science and we’ve gotten around the table on a lot of science issues in the northwest.
Maybe because of our high-tech economy and our labs and research, maybe we’re more comfortable with that. But we need our colleagues to embrace this response to coming to the table and planning with us how to best protect our communities.
Bill Loveless: But is the political climate there yet for some sort of substantive action by the Congress?
Maria Cantwell: Well, I hope this report helps them get there.
Bill Loveless: I guess it was only about 2009 when you and Senator Collins had the cap and dividend bill. I mean there was also a bill pending -- been passed by the house cap and trade. It was pending in the senate. Senator Graham was one of the co-sponsors of it. And that effort failed at the time. Since then, it’s been seen as very unlikely that any sort of action, congressional action on climate change would take place. With the Trump administration it seems that much less likely. Bur you hope that with reports like this, you’ll slowly see some sort of amount of building to some sort of solution, legislated solution.
Maria Cantwell: Yes. We have these discussions here all the time about a transitioning economy. I keep saying to the young people I work with, there’s a reason Ma Bell doesn’t exist anymore. But then they say to me, who’s Ma Bell and we talk about the transformation in a very short period of time from this major telecom company to now walking around with the hand held device.
The government has to do the same kind of reinvention if you will as it relates to these policies and issues. We can’t just say well, the water policies we had in the 60s and 70s that are basically stuck with us are going to be good enough in this kind of environment. We can’t say that the forest management strategies that we’ve had, the way we have funded the forest service is good enough to keep going under the scenario.
The same with water in general and the same with our coastal regions -- we’re going to require new strategies. So it means that we have to reinvent the way government is making these decisions. I think the unique opportunity here is that this is not about a top down discussion. This literally, when I think about it, the University of Fairbanks has probably some of the best science about permafrost and the impacts of permafrost.
Why not empower of regions of our country to talk about these impacts, to talk about what we’re going to best do to help mitigate the economic impacts that we’re going to see in the future or help strategize about the best ways to diversify. I’m hoping that my colleagues will look at that. I would assume if you went to Houston today and said, well, let’s make sure the University of Houston comes up with a better game plan for the future impacts of storm and what we can do to lower cost of those impacts and to better prepare, I would assume that people would say, yeah, let’s do that.
So, to me, maybe this will be a tipping point by which people realize that we do need more information, that we’re a regional approach and regional expertise might be the thing that wins the day and that the kind of science and information that they can provide is certainly something we should participate in.
Bill Loveless: You know, I thought that -- perhaps with the -- given the political stalemate in Washington on so many issues these days including climate right now, that perhaps the silver lining in that cloud is that the more of the thinking, the research, the policy actions will occur at the state and local level, you see a lot said by your governor, Governor Inslee in Washington State -- mayors across the country about actions that they intend to take to address climate change and maybe in effect it does bolster the regional approach which in the end may work well in conjunction with the government policy and national policy. But in the mean time, it’s giving that much more impetus acting locally, to acting regionally.
Maria Cantwell: Well, we’ve had for probably five or six generations shellfish growers who have provided a really great quality product for many Americans to consume Washington shellfish. When we several years ago literally ran into seeding issues because of ocean acidification, the fact that the shellfish just weren’t seeding, they’re just -- that level of temperature change in the water created real problems.
We had to depend on the university to tell the growers what exactly to do to solve this problem we had to create the actual science and research, to study. And then we had to create a buoy system of monitoring water quality and temperature and tell them what were they appropriate things to adjust for. So when I think about that, to me, I really just -- they didn’t come back here and knock on my door and say oh, what are you doing about this global issue.
They were basically saying our industry might go extinct if you don’t help right now. We need help. And for a little bit of resource, the University of Washington played a critical role to helping us save that sector. I think that’s going to play out over and over again -- particularly in agriculture, in forestry, we’re going to have to continue to make adjustments.
Bill Loveless: I want to broaden the discussion a little bit to include energy policy generally. We mentioned before that you’ve worked in conjunction with Republican senators in the past and it’s most evident in the work you’ve done with Senator Murkowski from Alaska, the chairman of the committee, the energy committee in which you are the ranking member. And I found from my reporting over the years that the Senate Energy Committee was always through administrations and whoever was controlling the chamber. One of the places where there was much collaboration and by partisan discussion and just about any place else on Capitol Hill.
And I think that continues to this day. That said, you guys have been frustrated over the past couple years and trying to get through an energy bill -- bill that would be the first piece of comprehensive energy legislations since 2007. And it’s not all that -- the bill isn’t all that controversial. Energy efficiency. Pipelines, hydro, other things like that, cyber security. Does that climate change anytime soon and how frustrating must that be to you?
Maria Cantwell: It is frustrating that we spend that much time producing a bill out of that senate, 85 to 12 and yet we can’t get our house colleagues to be serious about it. I think that give -- that is also almost an indictment of the house and the nature of the time we live in. We live in this information age where you can share so much more information. The energy committee isn’t really so R&D politic. It’s a little bit more regional by the states and what their energy ideas are. And of course, states are diversifying, so you can have somebody on the committee that has a pretty broad portfolio of energy I would say that probably our Colorado colleague that’s on the committee represents -- whole panoplies of energy mix in his state.
So you definitely aren’t this much into R&D politics. But because we’re the senate, a little more time, a little more focus, had the ability to talk about all of this issues, literally consider hundreds of ideas and work through them, the house -- listen, we can’t let our government be hand strung by a group that just starts off with no or we don’t want to consider something as basic as cyber security, we’re a little perplexed at this point in time when our grid needs to be fortified against literally state actors -- foreign governments attacking us, whether it’s a nuclear power plant or our grid network that we don’t have house colleagues that are willing to be aggressive about improving our cyber security infrastructure.
So I hope that our house colleagues can find a way to be able to move as fast as some of our enemies are moving that they’re able to move as fast as some of these sectors are moving and keep up, I think it’s critical for the U.S. that that they’re capable. And we are in a dynamic environment of energy moving to more distributed generation. I like that. I’m excited about that. It gives us way -- lot more -- gives us many more options than we’ve had in the past and certainly an ability to produce cleaner options and certainly ability to create smarter options, by that I mean things that will empower the consumer to be a little bit more in control of their energy and help drive down on their own cost.
Bill Loveless: But in the -- so would the focus for you these days be more on say, watching how regulatory bodies in Washington respond to energy markets today. For example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, that didn’t necessarily try -- once again to put together a big piece of legislation that may just fall flat again in the house.
Maria Cantwell: Well, you're right. I have to put my defense tennis shoes on and be out on -- ready for that game. But I would say that one of the great things about that energy bill is that we were targeting buildings which are about 40% of U.S. energy consumption and empowering businesses to help us drive down cost and make buildings more efficient. The last big energy bill had made automobiles more efficient. It increased the fuel of efficiency standard for automobiles and we achieved some great things from that energy bill.
The fact that we could target the building sector which we have seen is something that -- the more you save, the more businesses drive that into their own savings and their own -- it’s almost a feedback loop. They create their own efficiencies as businesses by getting those savings. So we thought that was a great opportunity and we would like to see it happen. So I actually think it’s one of the great things that could happen today. We were blessed to have the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, one of the smartest buildings in the entire world today.
It literally has a brain of its own in the context of how it controls the energy system and puts power back on to the grid and has created an environment in the northwest of how to build for the future, how to build with that kind of architecture that is going to drive down cost. So this is something the U.S. could be really a very big global leader in these kinds of technologies and I would just hope we would pursue it.
Bill Loveless: Did you take another shot at the legislation?
Maria Cantwell: We want to. We definitely want to. It’s getting our house colleagues to understand that they have missed a very important opportunity. And as I said, I just hope that -- I hope in this changing dynamic world that, the house realizes -- it has to build it’s own capacity to keep up that you can't just drag behind and let something as a important a cyber security and upgrading our electricity grid, go for five or six years just because some politics.
Bill Loveless: I can’t help but to ask -- I mean we discussed how well you work with Senator Murkowski. But on one issue, you guys have big differences and that’s drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The budget resolution would allow for that and Senator Murkowski is enthusiastic about it. You fought it, you had an amendment that lost along party lines the other day. Does that cause much of a difficulty between the two of you when it comes down to trying to work on other matters like this broad energy legislation?
Maria Cantwell: Well, I think it’s so wrong headed, I guess. Just the notion that we need more oil at this moment -- again, given this report and given our challenges, given that we export now and that you would take something as precious as U.S. Serengeti and open it up when there's so much discussion about where else we’re going to drill for oil. I think the interior secretaries wants to open like 1.7 billion acres off shore.
So there’s the notion that you can't have a patch of land somewhere that we’re saving. It’s just -- I just think is wrong headed. And the uniqueness of that area -- I think it would be so sad if generations from now, we had blown that opportunity. There's so many great places in America that we’ve been able to preserve. It’s taken us a few hundred years to be get there, whether it’s the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier. But I guarantee you, this is worth preserving.
Bill Loveless: Well, we need to leave it there. But Senator Cantwell, thank you for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Maria Cantwell: Thank you so much, Bill.
Bill Loveless: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. As always, we ask that you take a moment to rate our podcast to help us grow. And for more insights on today’s energy issues, visit us online at energy.colombia.edu or follow us on twitter and Facebook at ColombiaUEnergy. For the Colombia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll be back next week with another conversation.