Amid extreme heat and wildfires, President Joe Biden could free up disaster relief funds and slash carbon emissions by declaring a climate emergency. But last month, a group of GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to prevent him from making such a declaration.

CalFire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) firefighters take on the Rabbit Fire in Moreno Valley, California, on July 14, 2023. (Jon Putman / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

As record heat and wildfire smoke engulf huge swaths of the country, President Joe Biden could free up disaster relief funds and slash carbon emissions by declaring a climate emergency — a move Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly called on him to make.

But last month, a group of Republicans introduced a bill to prevent Biden from making such a declaration, with one senator arguing it would wrongfully “grant him more executive authority and grow the size of government all in the name of climate change.”

If Biden were to declare a national emergency over climate change, he could take aggressive action to cut fossil fuel production and speed up clean energy manufacturing by reimposing the ban on crude oil exports, halting oil and gas leasing, investing in public transit infrastructure, and requiring private companies to manufacture renewables.

​​“It’s outrageous that Republicans are trying to obstruct the government from confronting the climate crisis even as one hundred million Americans are under heat alert,” said Jean Su, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “President Biden should counter Republicans’ head-in-the-sand ignorance by declaring a national climate emergency and moving to rapidly phase out the fossil fuels driving this apocalypse.”

The Republican bill, derisively named the “Real Emergencies Act,” is being led by Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), both of whom have been fighting Biden’s climate agenda and have personal investments in fossil fuels.

“Our legislation ensures that President Biden does not abuse the power of his office to pursue his anti-American energy agenda against the will of the American people,” said Pfluger in a statement when the bill was introduced.

Pfluger is the House’s second-highest recipient of oil and gas donations, only after Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and is a director at Gentry Creek Energy LLC, “an energy company engaged in pipelines and infrastructure,” according to his personal financial disclosure.

He has introduced legislation to repeal a tax on methane emissions and is invested in a pipeline company that is a member of lobbying groups that cheered that bill’s passage in the House.

Capito, a longtime fossil fuel booster who has fought Biden’s climate agenda, has been a major backer of the natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline. She is also personally invested in the company constructing the pipeline project, which got a major boost from a special provision mandating its approval in the recent bipartisan debt ceiling deal.

The Real Emergencies Act’s seven sponsors in the Senate received a combined $3.1 million in contributions from fossil fuel industry executives and political action committees (PACs) over the 2017–2022 cycle, according to data from OpenSecrets. The bill’s nineteen House sponsors raked in $1.7 million from fossil fuel executives and PACs during the 2021–22 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.

The Capito-Pfluger legislation would prohibit the president from declaring a national emergency  “on the premise of climate change,” under any of three laws — the National Emergencies Act, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, and the Public Health Service Act — according to the bill text. The bill was first introduced last year, but made no progress in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Invoking emergency powers would give Biden a vast array of tools to fight climate change and fund resilience efforts without authorization from Congress. It would also free up funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend on disaster relief and mitigation efforts.

Biden has previously made national emergency declarations to extend COVID-19 programs and halt Russian oil imports. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to secure funding for a border wall after his requests were rejected by Congress — which lawmakers from both parties decried as executive overreach.

But while Republicans warn of potential executive overreach by the president, Biden has so far refused to declare a climate emergency, despite repeated demands that he do so from Democratic lawmakers and more than 1,200 organizations in the People vs. Fossil Fuels coalition.

Last summer, amid similar extreme heat and wildfires exacerbated by climate change, Biden reportedly considered declaring a climate emergency, but ultimately declined to do so. Last fall, after Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act — which provides hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits for companies to build clean energy infrastructure and for consumers to buy electric cars, among other measures — a group of Democratic senators demanded Biden build on the legislation by declaring a climate emergency.

“A president’s emergency powers should not be used wantonly,” wrote Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in an October 2022 letter to Biden, signed by seven other Democrats. “What we cannot afford, however, is to shy away from tackling the climate crisis just because President Trump misused the National Emergencies Act. If ever there is an emergency that demands ambitious action, climate chaos is it.”

They called on Biden to investigate the fossil fuel industry, decarbonize the Defense Department, and promulgate rules to reduce emissions from power plants, vehicles, oil and gas facilities, and fossil fuel production on public land. This spring, the Biden administration proposed two major regulations aimed at reducing emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants and vehicles. Top Republicans, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and the fossil fuel industry are fighting the power plant rules, even though they would only apply to a small fraction of gas facilities, and could actually extend the life of some coal and gas power plants.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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