By Michael Lux
The Obama administration took a giant step forward on clean energy last year when it ordered the Export-Import Bank to stop funding coal plants abroad. Unfortunately, the Senate is on the verge of undoing this progress by letting politics drive the Bank’s reauthorization this year.
The Senate is debating a provision from Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. that would allow the Bank to resume supporting the dirty energy projects that have decimated the environment and wrecked havoc on communities around the world.
Over the years, Ex-Im has permitted a coal plant in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, another in India whose emissions were equal to a fifth of all U.S. coal plants combined, and in possibly the most egregious case, a massive natural gas project in Papua New Guinea that evaded safety regulations, triggering a fatal landslide that killed 27 people.
Since President Obama took office, in fact, the Bank has ramped up its spending on fossil fuels, with funding soaring nearly five-fold since 2009. Outlays for renewables have barely budged during that time.
The Obama administration’s new policy last year seemed to signal an end to this dark era. It seemed only natural that the administration, which had begun tightening the screws on coal plants in the U.S., would do the same abroad. Many other investment banks around the world had already taken similar actions, and it appeared the U.S. was finally joining the global community in combating climate change.
Sadly, old habits die hard.
Mere weeks after the Ex-Im Bank issued its new rules, lawmakers were already calling for their rollback. In early 2014, House Republicans slipped a provision into their budget bill to allow fossil fuel funding in a wider group of developing nations, including India and Vietnam — site of the Bank’s most controversial projects.
The momentum has really picked up, though, with the recent debate over the Bank’s reauthorization. As the future of the Bank has become a hot topic on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are exploiting political divisions to push through their priorities.
Sen. Manchin — a longtime ally of the coal industry — has led the charge. Faced with the prospect of a battle among Senate Democrats over the Bank’s reauthorization, Manchin has decided to make his support contingent on a return to the Bank’s coal-filled past. His proposal would prevent the Bank from enforcing new energy guidelines for projects that would “increase exports of goods and services from the United States or prevent the loss of jobs in the United States.”
The Manchin proposal is highly misleading. Projects undertaken by the Ex-Im Bank are done so with the sole purpose of increasing United States exports. Manchin’s proposal would effectively prevent the Bank from enforcing clean energy rules for any project.
If Manchin is successful at putting his imprint on the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, its support for dirty energy projects will be sanctioned once again and we will see many more environmental disasters like the ones in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Already, the Bank has hinted it may fund yet another massive coal plant in India.
It is disturbing that a routine vote such as this one could contain such dangerous consequences for the environment. It seems that lawmakers just cannot stop using the Ex-Im Bank to prop up the fossil fuel industry. If efforts like Manchin and Kirk’s continue, the role of the Ex-Im Bank must be seriously reexamined — for the long run.
Michael Lux is co-founder of Democracy Partners, chairman of American Family Voices and served in the Clinton White House.