SOURCE: E&E News
When new Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) announced her Senate bid almost two years ago, the national political landscape looked very different.
"There was great hope the Senate was going to flip control and a senator like Kamala Harris was going to be part of a new Democratic majority — and the kind of majority where Harris is bringing the state of California leadership on issues like climate to that body," said Melinda Pierce, the legislative director of the Sierra Club.
The election of Donald Trump as president and a Republican-controlled Congress have left environmentalists and climate advocates scrambling to pick up the pieces and planning to play defense.
Now, as the 115th Congress ramps up, many greens in California and elsewhere see Harris, 52, as a key player to keep anticipated environmental rollbacks at bay.
"Before [the election], she was going to be someone who was going to push the envelope," said Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director with the Greenlining Institute in San Francisco. Now, he said, she will have to safeguard policy.
"Her role is going to be even more important," Sanchez said.
Already Harris — the second African-American woman elected to the Senate and the first Indian-American to serve in the upper chamber — is considered a rising national political star, maybe even a presidential contender for 2020. But for now, the former California attorney general, who previously was the top prosecutor in San Francisco, seems content to dig into her legislative work.
Harris will likely use her spot on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to sharply question Trump appointees and try to ward off assaults on Obama climate and water regulations. She said in a statement she plans to "fight hard against attempts to roll back key environmental protections."
Aside from the EPW panel, Harris will also serve on the Budget, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Intelligence committees.
Billionaire California environmental activist Tom Steyer said fighting the Trump administration on environmental regulation is not going to be easy.
"There's no question that Senator Harris will have her work cut out for her. She'll enter a Republican-dominated Congress prepared to rubber stamp Donald Trump's dangerous environmental agenda," he wrote in an email.
Harris' committee assignment ensures California and its progressive policies will retain some sway on the panel even with the retirement of its previous chairwoman, former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who gained a reputation as a fierce defender of the environment and champion of climate action (E&E Daily, Dec. 8, 2016).
The EPW slot will also give Harris a chance to help write expected infrastructure legislation, a measure that would almost certainly direct billions of dollars back to her home state (Greenwire, Dec. 20, 2016).
In Boxer's farewell address in December, she said she was pleased Harris would replace her.
"I am, of course, ecstatic that my successor is Kamala Harris, who has served as attorney general in my state with great distinction and who will continue the tradition of having a strong, progressive woman in this seat," Boxer said on the Senate floor. "A strong, progressive woman in this seat is what we need."
California Democratic Party Environmental Caucus Chairwoman R.L. Miller said she expects Harris to continue fighting Boxer's fights.
"I do expect her to go in and be a loud voice. She has been extremely fierce on Twitter, she is smart, she is always going to be well-prepared," Miller said. "I expect she'll spend some time learning the ropes, but I don't expect her to be quiet during that time."
Harris' office said her experience at the state level has positioned her well to serve on EPW, providing a list of accomplishments.
"As a prosecutor, she prosecuted Big Oil companies and big corporate polluters. She partnered with other Attorneys General to defend President Obama's Clean Power Plan and she will fight hard against any attempts to roll back critical environmental protections," her office said in a statement.
"And she has long been a proponent of investing in clean energy technology and green energies jobs that can fuel our economy and move our country away from fossil fuels. Much of the committee's work involves funding and approving infrastructure projects, and California has more than $59 billion in unmet transportation needs. Harris will fight for smart infrastructure investments that can help fuel long-term economic growth."
Harris is the second female African-American U.S. senator in history, after former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.). And she was the first woman, first African-American and first Asian-American attorney general in California.
She graduated from Howard University and the University of California, Hastings, College of the Law. She started her career in the Alameda County district attorney's office, working on prosecuting child sexual assault cases, before joining the San Francisco district attorney's office as head of the Career Criminal Unit.
Harris then spent two terms as San Francisco's district attorney before running for attorney general in 2010. While on the campaign trail to be attorney general, she made a point of talking about the environment.
"The harm that crimes against the environment exact on its victims are as imminent as any other crimes we can imagine or watch on television every night," she said during the campaign.
In her bid to replace Boxer, Harris again made environmental protection and climate action a central tenet of her campaign.
On the stump, she focused on her successful legal defense of California's landmark climate change law, A.B. 32. While opponents of the law have filed complex lawsuits seeking to undermine it, Harris managed to rebuff challenges.
The Sierra Club's Pierce said Harris' efforts to protect A.B. 32 positioned her as "a great defender of climate action at the state level."
"As AG, she's been a champion," the Greenlining Institute's Sanchez said. "She's been someone who's not scared of taking controversial positions."
While running for Senate, Attorney General Harris filed a lawsuit seeking penalties for a massive methane gas leak in Los Angles, launched an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil Corp. misled the public on climate change and even threw in her 2 cents on chemical policy reform — a low-profile issue Boxer long championed (E&E Daily, Feb. 25, 2016).
Miller, who also heads the watchdog group Climate Hawks Vote, said her team endorsed Harris because of her investigation into Exxon. But Miller said she was disappointed when Harris never followed up on the inquiry.
"There is a file open on Exxon," Miller said. "[Harris] never took part in any of the activities relating to investigating and the prosecution of Exxon. And we did have high hopes for her in that regard."
Harris also joined about a dozen other state attorneys general in supporting Obama's landmark carbon dioxide emission standards for power plants, the Clean Power Plan.
In 2011, Harris sued two plastic bottle makers and one additive manufacturer for making "false and misleading claims" in marketing plastic water bottles. Harris in 2013 reached a $24.5 million settlement with Chevron Corp. and Chevron Stations Inc. over allegations that the companies violated state laws on hazardous waste. In 2014, she secured a $23.8 million settlement with AT&T Inc. over claims it improperly disposed of hazardous waste.
One Sacramento, Calif.-based Democratic strategist, however, said that even though Harris hasn't done anything to directly upset environmental groups, her record on their issues is limited.
"She's had a very low-key tenure as attorney general compared to California AGs of the past who've been extremely activist," said Steve Maviglio, president of Forza Communications. "Her politics have been pretty cautious.
"She's not been a headliner on environmental issues, that's for sure," Maviglio added. "Filling Barbara Boxer's shoes on environmental issues, that would be a giant leap for her" (E&E Daily, Feb. 11, 2015).
Still, she put forward an ambitious environmental agenda during the Senate campaign, which included creating clean energy jobs, combating climate change, addressing California's drought concerns and establishing a federal renewable energy standard for electricity.
Parin Shah, senior strategist at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, expects to see Harris champion environmental causes.
"I don't think anybody in the environmental justice world thinks her office won't be accessible or won't be good advocates for environmental and social justice issues," he said.
While serving as San Francisco district attorney, Harris started an Environmental Justice Unit in the office. And she has prosecuted several industries for pollution, including U-Haul, Alameda Publishing Corp. and the Cosco Busan oil spill.
"She's played a very balanced role in stopping some of the corporate polluters' more ridiculous, outlandish ideas for the sake of the health of San Francisco and California families," Shah said. "And I think that's what she'll carry forward into her role as senator and whatever her next step will be after that."