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Heinrich Nudges Biden On Jobs Focus In Energy Transition Plans

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is aiming to help shape the Biden administration's climate change agenda, and he's pressing the White House to live up to its promise to not leave fossil fuel producing communities behind as it rolls out its clean energy plans. 

Heinrich teamed up with fellow New Mexican Sen. Ben Ray Luján in a letter to National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy urging the administration not to make its January pause on new lease sales for oil and gas drilling on public lands indefinite. That pause has angered Republicans, but the oil sector has taken a wait-and-see approach, since many still have years' worth of permits in hand to continue operations.

And in a separate letter, the two lawmakers asked the Interior Department not to extend an early memorandum centralizing approval for permitting actions to a top tier of political appointees beyond its current March 20 expiration date.

Heinrich, a senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is an unabashed backer of rapidly moving the country to clean energy, even while representing a state that gets nearly 40 percent of its budget from oil and gas revenues.

“The energy transition is coming,” he told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday. “We need to make a federal effort to smooth the economic impact that that is going to have for states like New Mexico or Wyoming or others.”

In the letter to McCarthy, Heinrich and Luján said while a short-term pause in new leasing is "fully appropriate" for the Biden administration to re-assess the program, "an extended and indefinite suspension would have significant impacts on our workforce and state funding for education and creates unnecessary uncertainty for New Mexico’s state and local tax revenues.”

Heinrich has spoken with McCarthy, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Interior Secretary-designee Deb Haaland about the needs to help communities affected by the energy transition. And he said he plans to introduce legislation to “deal with the revenue shortfall issue, in particular,” given the reliance on the funding for states like his. 

He acknowledges there's skepticism around administration promises that good-paying, clean energy jobs will replace the fossil fuel ones. But he argues the administration and Congress should invest in pilot projects, particularly in the nascent hydrogen industry. 

“The potential pivot for upstream oil and gas is really the hydrogen sector,” he said. “The overlap there with hydrogen is substantial. So if we could really invest and create a hydrogen hub somewhere that really kicked off that piece of our energy transition, I think that would go a long way towards building some of that trust.”

Both Heinrich and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), chair of the Energy Committee, have been among the most vocal Democrats in calling for including fossil fuel workers in energy transition plans, and the two lawmakers will be critical players in shaping how the party addresses the issue. 

Advocates in Washington say Heinrich's pragmatism — he voted for both of former President Donald Trump’s Interior secretaries and played a key role in getting lands packages, like the Great American Outdoors Act, across the finish line last Congress — will be crucial as Democrats seek to build consensus and coalitions for ambitious climate legislation. 

“He’s the bridge between a clean energy future and a fossil fuel-heavy present,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation who considers Heinrich a friend. “He’s perfectly situated. ... There aren’t a lot of people who can move between most progressive groups to Republicans to conservation groups.”

Following passage of the massive Covid-19 relief package, Heinrich expects the Democratic conference will assemble “one big package” on climate and infrastructure before August. He thinks budget reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority passage, will most likely be the means to move it and he doesn’t want to take any policy mechanisms off the table.

“We need to really start thinking about investing in more of an industrial policy strategy,” he said. “As much as I am a strong supporter of a clean energy standard, that doesn't get to a lot of the other sectors. It deals with the electric generation issue but we still have to decarbonize industrial processes like cement and steel and glass. And I don't think we should be taking a carbon tax off the table for those places that you can’t get to with a clean energy standard.”