Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a state run on fossil fuels, is "closing the distance" between himself and Democrats on policy proposals to combat climate change.
Barrasso is reluctant to eliminate the gap, viewing Democratic solutions as overly prescriptive, dramatic, and harmful to fossil fuels.
"I agree with the science," said Barrasso, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, in a rare sit-down interview in his office. "I disagree with the solutions Democrats are proposing in terms of this alarmist view. Is it a concern? Yes. But it's not a crisis."
Asked to describe his position further, Barrasso would not concede human use of fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change, as the majority of scientists say.
"I am not willing to say that. I am willing to say humans are contributing to the problem, and we have a responsibility to work toward a solution that's global," said Barrasso, who cited his background as an orthopedic surgeon who studied biology at Georgetown University in saying that he respects science.
Barrasso used to describe climate change slightly differently, saying that humanity's role in it is "not known," before identifying himself in a 2018 op-ed in the New York Times as someone who believes "we have a responsibility to do something" about it.
Barrasso has never been an outright skeptic of climate change, as was his predecessor as chairman of the environment committee, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican known for brandishing a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence that the world is not warming.
But Democrats and environmental groups long considered him to be one of the leading barriers to advancing legislation to curb carbon emissions, such as a failed bid to pass cap and trade in 2009.
Barrasso pushes back on the idea that he's changed his position at all.
He referenced a bill he introduced in 2009 with then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the former chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to award prizes to scientists and researchers who develop technologies to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere.
A press release issued by Barrasso's office from that time noted the bill was meant to "address global warming."
"I have a consistent history of introducing legislation along these lines," Barrasso said in the interview.
However, Barrasso has long highlighted the economic costs of responding to climate change through regulation or by taxing carbon emissions, and he's questioned the authority that federal agencies have to address it without Congress.
Barrasso, as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, is also a friend and ally to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a coal industry supporter who is the central boogeyman Democrats blame for the lack of sweeping climate legislation.
"I am against taxes on all this sort of stuff," Barrasso said. "Look at what the dangerous Democrat socialist policies are. It's the Green New Deal."
Barrasso's colleagues insist that his public posture and urgency to address climate change have changed, similar to the shift occurring among many Republicans in Congress, including leaders such as top House Republican Kevin McCarthy.
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a frequent collaborator, described Barrasso as an "intensely decent and honorable" person who "wants to do the right thing" but is limited to what he can do because of the state he represents.
"He is way too smart not to be able to see through the climate denial nonsense," Whitehouse told the Washington Examiner. "His seat puts him in a position where there is some distance between me and him. He is trying as hard as he can to close the distance. I am trying to help."
Barrasso is promoting private sector innovation as the solution to climate change.
He teamed up with Whitehouse last year on legislation signed into law by President Trump extending and expanding an essential tax credit to help build carbon capture projects. The duo co-wrote another bill signed by Trump in January to streamline the federal government's approval process for advanced nuclear reactors.
Barrasso is also grappling with the decline of coal in Wyoming, which remains the leading coal-producing state, thanks to its Powder River Basin. It is also diversifying to produce more natural gas, a less carbon-intensive fossil fuel, and wind, taking advantage of mountainous, rural terrain.
Wyoming also has the largest uranium mining operations in the United States, which explains Barrasso's strong support for nuclear power, which emits no carbon, despite the state not having any nuclear plants.
"Wyoming is the Saudi Arabia of wind," Barrasso said before trailing off. "And oil and gas and uranium. We have it all."
While Wyoming is struggling with lower revenue from fossil fuels, the production of coal, oil, and gas continues to fund a majority of the state's budget.
That reality influences Barrasso's stance on carbon regulations or taxes that would eliminate coal and eventually limit oil and gas. He won't say if the U.S. needs to reduce its use of fossil fuels.
"You want to deal with the carbon component of that," Barrasso said, alluding to his support for carbon capture, which would limit the emissions of coal or gas plants.
Whitehouse has called the Republican embrace of innovation "b*******" because the party won't pair the strategy with a carbon tax, which he says would spur quicker adoption of cleaner technologies to replace fossil fuels.
"Planting seeds here and there is one thing," Whitehouse said. "But if you really want innovation to be the solution, you need to create the demand. To do that, you need to put a price on carbon."
Barrasso said that and he Whitehouse frequently exchange emails on the pros and cons of a carbon tax. Big oil and gas companies have endorsed a carbon tax that returns the revenue to taxpayers, but congressional Republicans remain skeptical.
"Sheldon, I wish he were here because what I would tell him is these are real things and solutions," Barrasso said of his innovation agenda. "I disagree with a carbon tax, but we are both headed toward innovation."
Barrasso argued that a carbon tax would disadvantage the U.S. economy relative to China and India, the trio of countries that emit the most greenhouse gases.
"If you want to actually deal long term with the climate challenge, it's not punishing the United States," Barrasso said. "You have to come up with a global technology that China and India will use."
But Whitehouse is trying to convince Barrasso otherwise, warning him that Wyoming's dependence on fossil fuels risks stranding oil and gas reserves and production facilities once the country moves to a lower-carbon economy.
"I would be surprised if he were the first Republican to announce support for a big carbon price," Whitehouse said. "But if I try to put myself in his shoes, there are also values and natural assets that Wyoming has that are put at risk by not addressing climate change in a serious way."