Congress Begins to Shape Climate Policy

By Perry Bryant, Climate Committee Chairman

            There are going to be many twists and turns in the Congressional battle over climate policy. And anything I write might be slightly outdated by the time you have an opportunity to read this. But here’s where things are at the beginning of August, and what you can do to impact climate change policy.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill has passed its first hurdle in the Senate, and appears likely to pass the Senate. This bipartisan bill contains some important down payments on climate policy: investing in the electrical grid to make it more resilient, funding charging stations across the country for electrical vehicles, and investing in public transit and passenger rail. 

The bill also reauthorizes the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program for 13 years. Coal companies pay fees to the AML program to reclaim land mined prior to 1977, and these fees were reduced by 20%. However, an additional $11 billion in AML funding was included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Plugging orphaned oil and gas wells was also funded by $4.7 billion. And, tax credits were provided to encourage manufacturing of clean energy products (solar panels, and wind turbines, for example) in places that have lost coal mining jobs (48C tax credits).

As important as these provisions are, and they are very important and under appreciated by some, they do not address the need to systematically and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. The $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, currently being negotiated in the US Senate, is where most of the climate policy will need to be included. 

Central to reducing carbon dioxide emissions is adopting a clean energy standard that requires utility companies to generate 80% of their electricity with clean energy – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, etc. – by 2030.

The problem is that a clean energy standard doesn’t pass the Byrd rules governing the budget reconciliation process. The Byrd rules requires any item in a reconciliation bill be directly related to the federal budget. The Senate cannot adopt a policy, such as a clean energy standard, that is not directly related to the federal budget. 

Some Senators believe that adopting a Clean Electricity Payment Program would be a version of a clean energy standard that complies with the Byrd rules. A Clean Electricity Payment Program would set a national benchmark of having 80% clean energy by 2030, reimbursing utility companies that invest in clean energy sources, and penalize (tax) utility companies that don’t make adequate process towards this goal. 

Under a typical clean energy standard, utility stockholders and customer would be responsible for funding these new, clean sources of energy. Under the Clean Electricity Payment Program, the federal government, and not utility customers, would pay most of the cost for transitioning to clean energy. 

The other critical part of a Clean Electricity Payment Program is that it’s a national average, and not a requirement for each individual utility company. So a utility company like Monongahela Power Company that is heavily reliant on coal-fired power plants will need to invest in (and be reimbursed for) clean energy, but won’t be required to be at 80% by 2030, which is probably unrealistic given how reliant they are on coal-fired power. It is unclear what level of clean electricity will be required by 2030 for Mon Power and Appalachian Power Company, the two largest electricity generating utilities in West Virginia. But the recognition that not all utilities start at the same place in their journey to clean energy, and providing flexibility to those who start with a low percentage of clean energy (think West Virginia), is really important to the utility companies in our state and their ability to maintain reliability.

The companion policy to reduce greenhouse gases is tax credits for installing a whole host of clean energy sources. The Senate may extend and improve the tax credits for installation solar arrays, energy storage, and purchasing an electric vehicle, and possible for installing electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. 

It is the combination of a Clean Electricity Payment Program (the stick) and tax credits for clean energy installation (the carrots) that will assist the nation in achieving 80% clean electricity by 2030. 

Frankly, 80% clean energy by 2030 — nine years from now — is an ambitious goal. But we need ambitious goals given the severity of the climate crisis that we face. 

There are a number of other important environmental proposals being considered for inclusion in the reconciliation package. For example, the creation of a Civilian Climate Corp is being actively pursued in order to hire young people to make communities more resilient to the effects of climate change. 

If you have ever considered being involved in shaping climate policy, now is your time. Over the next month (maybe two), Congress will be shaping climate policy that could last decades. Consider writing to West Virginia’s two Senators. Both are going to play significant roles in shaping climate policy such as requiring utilities to achieve a national goal of 80% clean electricity by 2030 and providing tax credits to encourage investment in solar arrays, energy storage, and electric vehicles. Senator Manchin can be reached at 202-224-3954 or 306 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington D.C. 20510. Senator Capito can be reach at 202-224-6472 or 172 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510.