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Politics

Kevin McCarthy Couldn’t Save Himself. But He Still Might Save the Sequoias.

McCarthy spoke for the trees.

Kevin McCarthy camping beneath sequoias.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Dept. of Interior

The environmental movement likely won’t be missing Kevin McCarthy much.

His Bakersfield-based district is one of the centers of the California oil industry. The first major bill his House majority voted for would have scrapped a multi-billion dollar fund for clean energy investments in disadvantaged communities. He often took the side of agricultural interests in the Central Valley against environmentalists when it came to water policy. Environmentalist groups like Earthjustice and the Sierra Club have been criticizing him for literally more than a decade. The McCarthy-run House of Representatives passed bills (never turned into law) that would have undone swathes of the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate provisions and eased fossil fuel development.

But he has a thing for trees. The speaker of the House typically doesn’t directly sponsor much legislation, so it was noteworthy when McCarthy introduced a bill on Arbor Day with a fleet of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, especially from his home state of California, called the Save Our Sequoias Act. McCarthy’s district doesn’t just include some of California’s oil industry, but also Sequoia National Park, which contains the massive General Sherman Tree, which stretches 275 feet into the air from a 36-foot diameter base.

The bill, which McCarthy introduced in 2022 as well, would codify existing relationships between different governments to protect the trees, fund a grant program to remove fuel — dry leaves, fallen branches, etc — around the trees, make it easier for private donors to fund programs for the trees, and allow projects to protect the trees to circumvent the usual environmental permitting process.

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  • It was this last part that provoked many prominent environmental groups to oppose the bill, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, and the League of Conservation Voters. When the bill was introduced earlier this year, an Earthjustice official called it “a misguided solution in search of a problem that could set a dangerous precedent for gutting environmental laws.”

    The coalition formed to support the bill was a collection of industry groups, including those representing the logging industry and the Chamber of Commerce, free market or conservative environmentalist groups like the Property and Environment Research Center and American Conservation Coalition Action, as well as local statewide governments and conservation groups in California.

    In other words, it’s what it looks like when a Republican tries to pass a conservation bill: a combination of intense local interest and trying to bring on as many of the party’s traditional business partners as possible.

    The bill also had the influential co-sponsorship of Bruce Westerman, the Republican congressman from Arkansas who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. “Our priorities remain unchanged,” Rebekah Hoshiko, the committee’s communications director, told me in an email. “The Save Our Sequoias Act already passed out of committee and has overwhelmingly bipartisan support, and we will continue to advocate for it and our many other bills as they move through the legislative process.” The bill currently sits with the House Agriculture Committee.

    Groups that focus on conserving these massive trees hope the bill will survive. The Save the Redwoods League told me in a statement that it is “optimistic about the opportunity that the Save Our Sequoias Act presents.”

    For conservatives interested in climate change and conservation policy, the bill was an example of what they see as potential for other House leaders to craft bipartisan legislation. Stephen Perkins, the chief operating officer of the American Conservation Coalition Action, described the bill as “conservation policy that’s also climate action.”

    The Save Our Sequoias Act, Perkins said, was able to attract a bipartisan coalition because, for Democrats, it presented both a conservation and climate win — “wildfires and forest management play a direct role in keeping emissions in line and keeping emissions goals” — while, for industry and conservative groups, “it’s about keeping communities functioning and state economies in a good place.”

    And it also may present a kind of framework for another area of potential bipartisan overlap that McCarthy had shown some openness too: permitting reform. The exception carved out of environmental regulations for Giant Sequoia conservation was relatively small, but both Republicans and Democrats have shown some interest in a more general overhaul of federal environmental laws that, for Republicans, would limit reviews for all projects and for Democrats would hopefully make it easier to build renewable energy and especially transmission infrastructure. And McCarthy's own district doesn't just have oil in the ground, it also has energy in the sky, with windy mountain passes in the Tehachapis and the baking hot Mojave Desert.

    The House Republican likely to negotiate any permitting deal, Louisiana Representative Garrett Graves, has been described as McCarthy’s ”wingman.”

    While Perkins wouldn’t say who he or his group preferred among the crop of candidates to replace McCarthy, he did say that the “next speaker can’t ignore the opportunity to work on permitting reform,” noting that many young Republicans think the party should pay more attention to climate change.

    “We’re willing to work with anyone and we have worked with all of the representatives from the majority leader to the whip and so on and so forth. We’re confident that whenever a new speaker is [elected], we’ll be able to pick up conversations when we left them off with Speaker McCarthy.”

    Green
    Matthew Zeitlin profile image

    Matthew Zeitlin

    Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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