Tom Sawyer greenwashes a fence. (Art: Mother Jones)
315 days since Francis Rooney has appeared in an open, public forum
Jan. 3, 2019, by David Silverberg
Sensing a change in the wind—and the transition to a Democratic House of Representatives—Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) seems to have decided to change tack and espouse environmentalism, a practice derisively known among environmental activists as “greenwashing.”
This represents a complete change of direction from his prior positions denying climate change and staunchly supporting President Donald Trump’s exploitation-driven environmental agenda.
Just how real is Rooney’s conversion? We will see by his actions and voting record in the new, 116th Congress, which takes office today.
While Rooney has expressed concern for restoring the Everglades since his 2016 primary run, his voting record on environmental issues during his first term in office earned him a zero percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters and he consistently voted for measures that were regarded as polluting and environmentally unfriendly.
He vocally supported President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. At a town hall in Bonita Springs on May 31, 2017, Rooney stated that he did so despite the threat to Southwest Florida from sea level rise.
“We definitely need to learn all we can about why these sea levels are rising. I’m just not sure how much is man-made and how much is not,” he said. “I think that there is very complex issues surrounding global warming. Sea levels have been rising since the ice age.”
Written words don’t convey the dismissiveness of that statement at the time.
He repeated this assertion in subsequent town halls.
At a town hall in North Naples on March 3, 2017, Rooney stated that the Environmental Protection Agency must be “reined in.”
During his primary run in 2016, he refused to sign a Now-or-NeverGlades petition to allow nutrient-heavy water to flow south to The Everglades.
In addition to his positions and votes during his first term in office, his businesses, Rooney Holdings and Manhattan Construction, are heavily invested in fossil fuel and oil-related construction and infrastructure. In his first run for office he was backed by XL Group, the builders of the XL Pipeline, according to OpenSecrets.org.
According to an October 2, 2018 article by RL Miller on the website ClimateHawksVote.com: “Rooney came into Congress in 2017 holding the largest stake in the fossil fuel industry among incoming freshmen, according to E&E News. He sat on the board of two oil companies for the three years immediately prior to his election: Laredo Petroleum (where he still owns stock valued between $500,000 and $1,000,000), and Helmerich & Payne, an oil drilling firm (where his stock holdings are valued at $250,000 to $500,000). Rooney also remains an owner of Manhattan Construction, a $1 billion family-owned business that counts oil and gas drilling as part of its portfolio. According to E&E News, he owned stock in over two dozen more fossil fuel businesses.”
Additionally, during the 2018 red tide/algae bloom crisis in SWFL, Rooney was virtually invisible in taking action or even demonstrating care and concern for the people and businesses affected. He proposed no legislative or other solutions.
Rooney’s environmental record, his seeming indifference to the suffering brought on by the red tide crisis and his pro-Trump positions left him open to criticism and attacks during the 2018 midterm election. Late in the election cycle he joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in Congress, a group regarded by environmental activists as designed to provide environment-friendly cover to members of Congress who need that credential.
Having won his 2018 re-election, Rooney now appears to be attempting to position himself as a “green Republican.”
Rooney is playing up his cosponsorship of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (House Resolution 7173), which would progressively tax the carbon content of fuels in an effort to hold down emissions. It would be imposed on “producers and importers of the fuels and is equal to the greenhouse gas content of the fuel multiplied by the carbon fee rate.” That fee would start at $15 per ton in 2019 and rise by $10 every year thereafter until carbon emission targets are met. (A summary of the bill is available here.)
The bill was introduced on Nov. 27 by Florida Democrat Rep. Ted Deutch (22nd District) in the very waning days of the congressional session. Deutch, the sponsor, was joined by nine other cosponsors including Rooney. The lateness of the bill’s introduction meant that it had virtually no chance of passage whatsoever. According to Rooney, it will be introduced again in the new Congress.
Rooney’s cosponsorship of HR 7173 is being portrayed in various media—and by Rooney himself—as a major, radical break with conservative Republican orthodoxy, since it proposes a tax, which is anathema to elements of the party, and acknowledges climate change. “I’ll take some heat from our area to do this,” he said.
In an article the Naples Daily News titled “Francis Rooney talks about the GOP and climate change” by reporter Ledyard King that ran on the USA TODAY network, King called Rooney “a vanishing breed on Capitol Hill: a pro-Trump Republican member of Congress who advocates dramatic steps to address human-caused climate change by ending America’s dependence on coal.”
Rooney told King his main focus is to shut down coal-fueled power plants and that’s what HR 7173 primarily does. “There’s no reason to burn coal,” he said.
Also, in a head-spinning turnaround, for the first time Rooney acknowledged that there may indeed be man-made climate change by saying he accepts the results of the Fourth National Climate Assessment on climate change and that Republicans should be less ideological in their opposition to the notion.
“I tell [Republican colleagues] try to look a little more broadly and less ideologically about it. For a lot of Republicans, climate change has become an ideological thing instead of a science-based thing. Let’s look at the science,” he’s quoted as saying.
Coming from Rooney, looking at the science is indeed breaking news.
By cosponsoring HR 7173 and going on what amounts to a “green offensive” Rooney appears to be swinging for a political grand slam.
- Rooney is putting some daylight between himself and President Donald Trump by breaking with Trump’s dismissal of climate change as a hoax and Trump’s promotion of coal as a fuel. No doubt Rooney hopes this will serve him well in a Democratic House of Representatives where he will be in the minority. This is in contrast to his first term when Rooney served as a vocal Trumpist and voted with Trump 97 percent of the time. Trump was so pleased with Rooney’s defenses of Trump himself and his policies that he singled him out for praise during his rally in Fort Myers on Halloween. “He’s brutal,” Trump said of Rooney. “He gets the job done.”
- By breaking with Trump and climate change-denying Republicans, Rooney is shoring up his environmental vulnerabilities that were exposed during the midterm election campaign. After the red tide/algae bloom disaster of the past summer and his non-response, Rooney clearly wants to build an image as a “green Republican,” and that will take some major revisions in his past positions. Also, his polling no doubt showed that environmental concerns were top of mind for Southwest Floridians and he realizes that they’re a way to reach a younger constituency that is “more environmentally sensitive” as he put it.
- Rooney’s cosponsorship of HR 7173 and his attacks on coal are particularly interesting. Yes, coal is a very dirty and polluting fuel. But these may not only be disinterested actions aimed at protecting the environment—rather, the taxes proposed in the bill will serve to cripple a fossil fuel that competes with oil and gas, in which Rooney is heavily invested. In his interview Rooney highlighted natural gas as a cleaner fuel but his main focus was on the need to stop the expansion of the coal industry, which Trump favors. Coal burning is not only bad for the environment, it’s bad for oil and gas profits and since there are no coal interests anywhere in Florida that could bite back, opposing coal brings no local negative repercussions and works to Rooney’s personal advantage. It also bears noting that nowhere in his interview did Rooney mention renewable energy sources like solar or wind.
As for the downsides of this new policy flip, there are virtually none: far from taking “some heat from our area” for his new positions, Rooney’s new stance is likely to be largely ignored by the vast majority of Southwest Floridians and accepted at face value by an uncritical media. He may face some chiding from his former companions in the more extreme elements of the Republican congressional caucus in Washington DC, but with them out of power in the House and their influence apparently eroding by the day, there’s not much price to be paid by breaking out of the pack.
Far from being what Ledyard King characterized as “a vanishing breed on Capitol Hill,” Rooney looks to be the first of a new breed of Republicans who realize that buying into the Trumpvironment is bad for one’s political health.
It’s also objectively bad for the natural environment and peoples’ health, habitation and businesses—an indisputable fact that was brought home for Southwest Florida in last year’s environmental disaster.
Rooney is at the cutting edge of what will likely be a growing—not diminishing—number of Republicans who realize that denying climate change, adhering to President Trump’s environmental agenda and rolling back environmental protections is a losing hand, especially in what is going to be a very environmentally active House of Representatives. Their defection from Trumpvironmentalism will be accelerated if Trump is impeached or loses influence in Congress as he’s already doing.
But this trend must be confirmed by actions and votes. Southwest Floridians cannot simply accept Rooney statements at face value. Last term Rooney was aided by general indifference to his actions in Congress and the media’s failure to scrutinize them. In this term his every action, statement and vote must be carefully monitored and evaluated.
It’s not enough to say that you’re green. You have to prove it—and Rooney ain’t there yet.
Liberty lives in light