E&E News: Padilla outlines plans for energy, natural resources perch

By Kelsey Brugger

California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla last month became the newest member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he’ll deploy his progressive bona fides to shape national energy and environment policy.

Already, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated mechanical engineer has authored bills to strengthen the electric grid and expand protections for California’s public lands that have made their way through the committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who announced last week he would not run for reelection.

“Energy and natural resources issues are not new to me,” Padilla said in a recent in a recent interview with E&E News. “They’re hugely important for California.”

He’s had success in making some of his priorities reality, including language in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to help grid resiliency.

Padilla also sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee and chairs its Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife. He will be the only senator on both ENR and EPW.

That’s by design: He said he wants to “sort of tag team” to “advance these policies more comprehensively.”

Manchin’s committee focuses on natural resources, oil and gas development, conservation, minerals and public lands.

EPW covers infrastructure and the environmental laws governing construction of those projects — green and otherwise.

Padilla called the opportunity to serve on both “exciting.”

He pointed to California’s drought and clean energy goals as motivation for joining the committees. He said he’s looking forward to
“building on the work I’ve done to make our electric grid more reliable and better protect communities from wildfires.”

The Californian joins ENR at a time when Manchin has criticized the Biden administration and promised to scrutinize implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, a law Manchin helped write.

Padilla, too, talked about the importance of “ensuring that the programs and the funding that have been approved are being implemented quickly and responsibly.”

Manchin ally on permitting
A son of Mexican immigrants, Padilla grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley. During the summer, his uncle would take him and his cousins to the beach, where he urged the young kids to pick up the forgotten food wrappers and cups — an early memory that instilled in him the importance of leaving a place better than you found it.

Another early memory that piqued his interest in environmental issues, he said, was when his mom would take him to join a protest in the early 1990s at what used to be the Lopez Canyon Landfill near his neighborhood.

Even though the dump had reached capacity, he said, the city council kept extending the license.

“Our community bore the brunt of what landfills mean — soil contamination, water impacts, trucks driving through the neighborhood,” Padilla said. “We’re talking poisonous toxic exhaust.”

The landfill was shut down in 1996. This early bit of activism stuck with him when he would later veer into politics.

He worked as an aide for the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), before joining the campaigns of other California Democrats.

Padilla won a seat on the Los Angeles City Council at age 26 and went on to serve in the state Senate, where he chaired the Energy and Utilities Committee.

In 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to replace Kamala Harris when she left the Senate to become vice president. He won reelection in 2022.

In the Senate, Padilla has made climate and environment his top issue areas. The League of Conservation Voters gives him high marks, scoring his votes as “pro-environment” 98 percent of the time.

One black mark, in their view, was when he supported Manchin’s permitting amendment that failed to get on last year’s must-pass defense policy legislation.

Padilla said that before joining the committee, he and Manchin spoke about the importance of enacting permitting legislation. Even though the appetite for a larger permitting reform package has waned in recent months, Padilla does not think it’s dead.

“I definitely see that conversation coming back — and sooner rather than later,” he said. “For the very specific reason of all the investments in renewable energy. The need is absolutely still there — to get the energy from where we can produce it to where we need it.”

Priorities and the road ahead
Padilla’s legislation, the “POWER On Act,” was included in the bipartisan infrastructure law. It provided funding for utilities to improve the resiliency of their grid.

He called it a “recognition not just of the threat wildfires pose to keeping the lights on in summers in California, but also what we’ve seen in other parts of the country, including but not limited to Texas, where winter ice storms impact the grid.”

More broadly, his work on environmental issues has ranged from climate resilience to national monuments and recreation.

Earlier this month he introduced a bipartisan bill, S. 3221, with Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and others to increase salaries for federal firefighters.

He reintroduced a measure, S. 1776, earlier this year with Feinstein to expand protections for more than a million acres of California’s public lands.

And his legislation, S. 1097, to create the César E. Chávez and the Farmworker Movement National Historical Park, recently cleared committee.

“There’s also things that we need to do more work on,” he said. “For all the good that we’re investing in renewable energy sources…we know that transmission infrastructure and the permitting conversation is going to be critical to meet our goals.”

That could be tough. The outlook for a larger bipartisan permitting package is uncertain given how far apart Republicans and Democrats are on the particulars.

Generally, Republicans want to amend environmental laws to speed up environmental review for fossil fuel projects and renewables, too. Democrats want to build out the grid to power the country with renewable energy.

Any kind of horse trade would likely see pushback from environmental justice advocates who rallied to oppose the failed 2022 Manchin permitting bill that Padilla supported.

He acknowledged how hard it can be to protect overburdened communities and at the same time still build out sometimes controversial energy projects, like hydrogen hubs or carbon capture, that environmental justice advocates resist.

“I do think the conversations can be challenging at times because the issues are complex,” he said. “The problem is complex. And the solutions need to be thoughtful and multidimensional.”

But he also expressed a strong sense of hope: “When I step back, I think we all should be proud of the amount of a consideration of the issues of equity and justice that have been incorporated into the big pieces of legislation in the last couple of years.” He noted the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act included more money for environmental justice than ever before.

“Have we figure it all out?” he asked. “Not quite yet. But we’re definitely moving into in a more thoughtful direction.”

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