A Day to Savor: Beating Big Oil on Capitol Hill
Earthjustice’s Jessica Ennis recounts how environmentalists scored a surprise victory in Washington this week.
Environmental advocates went toe-to-toe with the oil and gas industry in the halls of Congress this week. And in the face of stiff odds, we managed to chalk up a big win in the U.S. Senate, keeping an important regulation on the books that protects communities and our climate from oil and gas pollution.
The vote came at the tail end of a spree of votes forced by anti-regulatory extremists in Congress. Using an anti-democratic tool known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to roll back new rules created by federal agencies, these extremists have been taking aim one-by-one at important protections ushered in under the Obama administration.
Wielding the CRA, legislators have managed to do an awful lot of damage so far, for instance in February they killed a rule that keeps coal mining pollution out of streams. And before their window of opportunity closed, these pro-polluter zealots were determined to hand over one last giveaway to the oil industry.
But in a stunning upset, pro-environmental forces beat them at their own game.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how it happened:
I’ve spent much of the past eight years working with a broad group of partners and allies in Congress to build support for strong regulations on the oil and gas industry. Those relationships proved critical. When we learned earlier this year that anti-environmental forces planned to undo a rule limiting pollution from oil and gas drilling on public lands, our coalition was ready to step up. We made sure members of Congress heard from their constituents—including thousands of Earthjustice supporters—about the need for these rules.
My colleagues and I made good progress, and while this rule-killing measure passed in the U.S. House in February, the margins were tighter than anti-environment leaders in Congress had hoped and the resolution stalled for several months.
But as the deadline for Congress to act loomed closer, anti-environmental Senators decided to roll the dice and push for a vote, despite the very public waffling of key swing members. Nobody knew how the vote would turn out.
The moment of truth came on Wednesday. That morning, I prepared to watch the U.S. Senate floor for most of the day. Around 10 a.m., we expected a procedural vote on a “motion to proceed,” which would allow this anti-environmental measure to be taken up in the Senate. As I was walking to work earlier that morning I saw a high priority email – the vote would be earlier now.
As I sped up and finally got to the office, I received another note – Vice President Pence had arrived on the Hill. The vice president does not frequent Capitol Hill. He is brought in when Senate Republican leadership expects a close vote. The stakes were high, and incredible Senate champions including Sen. Maria Cantwell and Sen. Tom Udall were prepared to go to the floor and fight for communities threatened by oil and gas pollution.
While Vice President Pence made his way to the chambers, I was in my office watching the Senate floor on C-SPAN, texting my friend and colleague Lauren Pagel of Earthworks, who was doing some 11th-hour lobbying off the Senate floor. With a strike of his gavel, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the “motion to proceed.” And so, the vote began.
And so, the vote began.
The clerk of the Senate called the roll, comprised of all 100 Senators. Senators usually have about 15 minutes to vote, so I wasn’t paying extremely close attention to the count yet. But when I did finally look, I realized that the noes were ahead of the yeas, 49-43. We were only two votes away from stopping the CRA before it even made it to actual debate. At this point, I figured there were just a bunch of Republicans who hadn’t yet cast their votes, and the numbers would even out. But over the next five or 10 minutes (it seemed so fast and so slow all at the same time), the noes clicked to 50, and then to 51. We had won.
In my excitement, I screamed so loudly that a few of my colleagues came running down the hallway, checking to make sure I was OK. As they looked into my office, I teared up, something I don’t think has ever happened at work.
This was an incredible victory for our environment and the health of our communities. And now the fight goes on—the very same day as this Senate vote, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that his department would try to undo this very same rule. But in this round of the people versus Big Oil, the people had won—something that doesn’t happen every day, certainly not in Congress.
Our Hill champions, the affected communities, and I will savor this victory for many years.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The 45th U.S. president, Donald J. Trump, is bent on gutting environmental protections, and—with a polluter-friendly Congress at his side—he’ll likely do everything he can to dismantle our fundamental right to a healthy environment. The Capitol Watch blog series will shine a light on these political attacks from Congress and the Trump administration, as well as the work of Earthjustice and our allies to hold them accountable.
From 2008-2022, Jessica Ennis was part of the Policy & Legislation team in Washington, D.C., advocating for the protection of people, public lands, and the environment from the potentially devastating impacts of oil and gas development.
Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.