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Utah group questions whether Curtis’ climate caucus is way to ease pressure on Republicans

Environmental organization SUWA questions whether Rep. John Curtis is giving political cover to GOP.

(Michael Stravato/The New York Times) Natural gas being flared at well site north of Odessa, Texas, Jan. 29, 2016. Leaks from natural gas drilling, shipping and storage are one of the main sources of methane emissions in the U.S.

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The Conservative Climate Caucus continues to grow, and its leader, Utah Rep. John Curtis, has hit the national media circuit. He’s communicating that Republicans care about climate change, too, even if they may have more industry-friendly solutions.

A Utah-based environmental group is increasingly skeptical, however, pointing to a vote on methane gas just two days after Curtis and his Republican colleagues announced the creation of their new group.

The House voted in late June to repeal a Trump administration rule and restore restrictions on methane gas, with a focus on stopping leaks. The standards are backed by major oil and gas companies like Shell and BP. Still, most Republicans, including Curtis, voted against the methane limits. Natural gas drilling sites are one of the main sources of methane leaks.

“Curtis’ vote was on the wrong side of an important step toward controlling climate change,” said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, known as SUWA, “and it adds to the concern that his new caucus is just political cover for the Republican Party.”

A dozen Republicans did vote for this measure; none from Utah. It has now passed Congress.

Curtis defended his vote. He said the methane rule “puts the U.S. at a disadvantage while letting foreign countries off the hook, despite U.S. gas already having a substantially lower lifetime carbon intensity than our biggest foreign competitors.”

“Even if the U.S. stopped emitting carbon tomorrow,” Curtis added, “it wouldn’t impact global climate change as long as the rest of the world continues on the same upward trajectory of emitting greenhouse gasses.”

He said that “Republicans are pushing an innovative agenda with proposals such as exporting our clean energy abroad, which will actually tackle the real problem: lowering global and national carbon and methane emissions.”

When asked about his methane vote, Curtis told the publication E&E News, “I need to better understand methane. I understand just enough to know that it’s a problem, but I don’t really have a strategy for reining it in.”

Curtis and a group of 52 House Republicans created the Conservative Climate Caucus on June 23, two days before the vote on methane.

The caucus includes Utah’s three other House members — Reps. Chris Stewart, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore. The goal is to create a forum to educate Republicans on climate change. Members agree the climate is changing and pollution from companies is a part of it, but they also say fossil fuels should be part of the solution.

For example, Curtis believes places like Utah should export natural gas to China and other countries that are more reliant on coal, because that would reduce emissions.

Many environmental groups responded cautiously to the creation of the Conservative Climate Caucus, recognizing that Curtis is encouraging more of his party to engage on the issue.

“We really welcome Rep. Curtis helping other Republicans recognize what the science has shown us for decades,” The Wilderness Society’s Drew McConville said. “Our political leaders ought to be judged by the actions they take and the progress they make and whether they make this a priority.”

SUWA is taking a stronger stance, questioning whether the caucus is merely a way to ease political pressure on Republicans.

“Most Americans understand the threats from climate change,” Groene said, “especially young voters.”

Curtis has made a similar point. He said Republicans have made a mistake by largely rejecting climate change, when the science says it is real and it is an issue of great importance to many voters, particularly younger ones.

It appears his party is starting to listen. Membership in his caucus is now up to 64. He said the caucus won’t take positions on bills, but will help Republicans be prepared to answer questions about climate change and to offer solutions that they believe will reduce emissions without causing broad damage to the economy.

Environmentalists, like Groene, worry that Curtis and the Republicans are not willing to take actions on a broad enough scale to slow global warming.

“We do need solutions,” he said, “not what appears to be an excuse to defend old industries that have caused climate change.”

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