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Is a carbon tax possible in a divided Congress? Sen. Mitt Romney is hopeful

Sen. Mitt Romney and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall talked about climate change at a Washington Post webinar this week

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, talks to Washington Post political reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell, left, during a Washington Post discussion on climate change.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, talks to Washington Post political reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell, left, during a Washington Post discussion on climate change on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in Washington.

Kaz Sasahara

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney reaffirmed his support for a carbon tax, calling it the “No. 1 thing” that will help curb global emissions and rising temperatures, an idea that is slow to gain traction in the Republican Party.

Romney spoke during a Washington Post webinar on Thursday morning, taking the stage after President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, to talk about ways to curb climate change.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also spoke earlier in the week, touting steps taken to combat air pollution and ways she hopes to juggle population growth and water conservation.

While Romney acknowledged a carbon tax likely wouldn’t get majority support among Senate Republicans, he placed the blame on Democrats for not passing some kind of tax through reconciliation while they enjoyed control over the U.S. House, Senate and White House.

“They could have done it. It was an opportunity that was missed and we’ll be very sorry about that for a long time,” Romney told Washington Post political reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell, suggesting the Democrats were concerned they might lose support among their own ranks during negotiations.

Romney said the carbon tax is sometimes framed as just a way for the government to make money, an assertion he pushed back on Tuesday, calling the policy a “massive incentive for the private sector to innovate.”

A carbon tax is typically defined as a government fee that companies must pay for each ton of greenhouse gas they emit. A number of carbon tax or cap-and-trade bills have been introduced at the federal level in recent years, but support has been hard to come by in the Republican Party, especially among free-market conservatives.

Some Republicans have suggested they could be on board, including North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer. Earlier this year, Cramer tried to pick up support among his GOP colleagues for taxing carbon-intensive goods from China and Russia, rebranding it as an “America First energy policy.”

Romney thinks he can find some conservatives to back a carbon tax — but not a lot.

“I don’t need a lot, because I think we can get a lot of Democrats and I think we can get some Republicans,” he said. “But we got to be honest with people because my colleagues correctly point out that a lot of what we’re doing sounds good, but won’t make a difference.”

In the meantime, Romney says it’s not realistic to expect the U.S. to immediately phase out fossil fuels, and in the interim he wants to see more investments in nuclear power and natural gas.

The Utah Republican voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed along party lines with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. Proponents of the bill say it’s the single largest step toward combating climate change in U.S. history, though Romney called it a “reckless taxing-and-spending spree” in the wake of its passage.

On Thursday, he said there were parts of the Inflation Reduction Act he supported, but he ultimately voted no because of the bill’s “long list of Democratic hopes.”

“A good portion of the Inflation Reduction Act is associated with investments in new technology — I’m all in favor of those things. We could have done those on a bipartisan basis,” he said.

When asked how he plans to address climate change heading into a divided Congress, Romney said more Republicans will be on board with measures that are targeted and take a global and prudent approach. The GOP’s skepticism over climate legislation often stems from spending, Romney says.

“We often spend vast amounts of money to do things that make us feel good, and make the public think we’re really solving the problem, when in fact we’re not because the problem is global,” he said.

What does Romney mean by thinking global? Investing in “low emitting and low cost” technologies that other countries with high emissions like Brazil, Indonesia, India and even China, can adopt, he says.

Tackling the Great Salt Lake’s woes, at the local and federal level

Thursday marked one week since the Senate unanimously passed the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which greenlights a study by the U.S. Geological Survey and a number of other federal, state and tribal entities, universities and environmental groups.

Introduced by Romney and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the study seeks an action plan to assess, monitor and conserve saline lake ecosystems.

During the webinar, Romney said saving the Great Salt Lake will require help at the federal and state level, and the first place government should look to incentivize change is agriculture.

“We’re going to have to have technologies that are available to dramatically reduce the amount of water that goes into raising crops in our state and in surrounding states as well.

Romney also said individuals should take some responsibility — “We have a lot of lawns in Utah, I have a big lawn in Utah, I shouldn’t.”

He didn’t rule out the idea of building a pipeline from the ocean, a proposal that took a step closer to reality this summer with the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act. The bill would set aside $10 million to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of a 700-plus-mile pipeline from Utah to the Pacific Ocean. The proposal has already received pushback from some scientists and environmental groups.

On Tuesday, Mendenhall called Utah’s capital city the “tip of the spear” in the state and much of the West, for water conservation efforts.

“Taking on the challenge isn’t new to us ... that was already part of our culture here locally in Salt Lake City,” she said.

Mendenhall said the Utah Legislature’s focus on the Great Salt Lake during the last session was commendable, and she hopes to see that momentum continue this February.

“I think it’s an issue that they’re going to take up in about 42 days when their session begins again, because the solution simply isn’t found yet,” she said.