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Progressives torn over pushing green agenda in shadow of Ukraine war

Some Democrats say they need to be careful about how they discuss climate change and renewable energy amid the suffering in Eastern Europe and high gas prices in the U.S.
A driver returns a fuel nozzle to a gas pump
A driver returns a fuel nozzle to a gas pump at a Chevron gas station in San Francisco on Mar. 7, 2022.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine has put progressive lawmakers in a delicate spot: Some prominent leaders say they should seize the moment and aggressively promote an ambitious clean energy agenda, while others want to pump the brakes on that strategy.

For some liberal lawmakers, there is reluctance to use the bloody conflict in Ukraine — and the soaring U.S. gas prices stemming from it — to make the case that America needs to wean itself off fossil fuels and fully embrace electric vehicles and renewable energy.

Their constituents, particularly poor and middle class families, are feeling the pain at the pump and looking to Washington for immediate relief that could come in the form of a federal gas tax holiday or legislation to rein in price hikes, these progressive lawmakers said.

But with images of dead children, mass graves and bombed-out apartment buildings in Ukraine, voters also are pressing those representatives to do more to help Ukrainians defend themselves against Russian troops.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said constituents in his Long Beach district are consumed by the war in Ukraine that has killed hundreds of innocent civilians, stranded millions more and sent more than 3 million refugees flooding into neighboring countries.

“The human misery and the attacks on Ukraine are overwhelming to my district and the American public. I’m getting tremendous amount of mail asking me what are we going to do,” Lowenthal told NBC News, while noting the dual economic and military challenges. “Right now, the focus is on the cost of gasoline and Ukraine, and the fear that we could be in a war ourselves. Fear has gripped the nation.”

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., is also among those who say Democratic priorities should focus on immediately lowering gas prices while also helping Ukraine.

“Americans are really struggling economically, and gas prices are impacting people and people are really feeling that in their wallets,” said Stansbury, who backs efforts by New Mexico leaders to temporarily suspend the state’s gas tax, following actions Friday by Maryland and Georgia.

“It’s a moment when we have to make sure that we’re fighting the good fight on the international front and we’re supporting our own citizens at home economically,” she added.

For other Democrats, now is the time to shine a spotlight on energy policies.

“I don’t think there is a problem in us saying that this is our moment, as a country and as a world, to deal with issues of climate,” said progressive Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., before driving off from the Capitol in her new white Tesla Model 3.

Remarks like those highlight the tricky midterm messaging facing Democrats as they grapple with high gas prices and a worsening war but also enormous pressure from environmental groups and climate activists who are demanding progressive lawmakers push their green energy agenda while they have slim majorities in the House and Senate.

Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal conceded that how Democrats talk about the climate crisis during a horrific, violent war is “definitely a needle to be threaded.” But she said she has been making the case, in TV interviews and press conferences, that this is a crisis Democrats should capitalize on to preserve the planet — and democracies around the world like Ukraine.

“This situation has showed us how dependent the world is on oil from dictators,” Jayapal told NBC News on Friday, adding “That should be even more of a reason to focus on the transition” away from fossil fuels.

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who heads House Democrats’ campaign arm, said his party can walk and chew gum at the same time, focusing on both the immediate crisis in Eastern Europe and the long-term fight against climate change.

“It’s critical that we do something about the pain of the pump,” he said, “but it’s a false choice to think we can’t tackle the climate crisis at the same time or at least adopt the policies that will move us in that direction.”

The national average price for a gallon of regular gas on Friday was $4.27, according to AAA, down slightly from last week’s $4.33 when President Joe Biden announced a ban on Russian oil and other energy exports.

This week, Maloney introduced a pair of bills designed to lower gas prices. One would keep American-produced gas and other energy products in the United States instead of exporting them; the other would impose an excise tax on oil companies that seek to profit off the Ukraine crisis.

“And if I were down at the White House,” Maloney said, “I would bring the oil company executives in … and go around that table like Al Capone with a baseball bat and say you better lower gas prices for the American public because you’re not going to profit off of Putin’s war.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., vowed this week to call major oil and gas company executives before Congress in the coming weeks and question them about high gas prices and potential price gouging.

With all eyes on Ukraine, Biden’s domestic agenda remains stalled just eight months out from a critical midterm election. So on Thursday, Jayapal’s Progressive Caucus unveiled a slate of more than 50 areas where they said the president could use executive orders to enact liberal policies, including declaring a National Climate Emergency to increase renewable energy production and ending domestic and international federal fossil fuel subsidies.

Republicans, who are increasingly confident they are on the cusp of taking back control of the House this fall, say it’s a huge political blunder for top Democrats to talk up a transition to clean energy at a time when consumers are paying more for gas and groceries.

“This will really fall flat on its face. … It’s a fairy tale,” said Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, who represents a district outside of Houston and has worked various jobs in the oil and gas industry.

“Hopefully we’ll have thermal … and all kinds of things that would be an alternative to what we have today,” he said. “But wind and solar and these types of renewable energy are not ready for primetime.”

Some Republicans have been working closely with the Biden administration and progressives on clean-energy alternatives. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., joined Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy at a summit Thursday on the future of nuclear fusion, what he called “an incredible event.”

But Fleischmann blasted Democrats who are trying to use the surge in gas prices to wean America off oil.

“We need to drill. We need to utilize our fossil fuels, an all-of-the-above approach,” he said.