What Happens on Climate Next in DC? Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

By Perry Bryant

            As of the first of October, the House of Representatives has delayed consideration of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Speaker Pelosi did not have the votes to get it passed when Progressive Democrats indicated they would vote against it unless the Senate first passed the much larger $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, the budget reconciliation package. The delay in voting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill triggered further negotiations on the Build Back Better bill.

Both bills have important climate provisions. The smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill has the following major climate provisions:  $16 billion for capping orphaned wells and cleaning up abandoned mines, including the reauthorization of the Abandoned Mines Land program for 13 years; $15 billion for electric vehicle charging stations; $73 billion for upgrading the electricity grid; and $47 billion for climate resiliency projects.

Even with all this funding to address the climate crisis in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the major climate measures are in the larger Build Back Better bill. As drafted by the House of Representatives and supported by both the House and Senate leadership, the Build Back Better bill includes a Clean Electricity Performance Program that will pay utility companies to switch to clean energy sources and penalize them if they didn’t achieve an increase in clean energy generation of 4% a year. Four percent annually doesn’t sound like much but is actually an aggressive schedule, and is designed to get the nation’s electrical grid to 80% clean energy by 2030. 

The House version also contained billions of dollars in tax credits for installing clean energy such as solar, hydro, geothermal, nuclear (it produces no carbon dioxide, one of the major drivers of climate change) and other clean energy sources. Electric vehicles (EVs) would qualify for tax credits up to $12,000 per vehicle. And there is a fee on leaks of methane during drilling, processing and distribution of natural gas.

Senator Manchin has expressed some fundamental concerns about the Clean Electricity Performance Program. Senator Manchin questioned whether the federal government should pay utilities to switch to clean energy and suggested that the government should provide low-interest loans instead of grants, which is likely to lead to higher consumer electric bills. Additionally, Senator Manchin has proposed that spending should be on “innovation not elimination.” Yet, the world’s climate scientists have concluded that we must transition away from burning fossil fuels and to renewable forms of energy.  Senator Manchin is the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a pivotal vote on the Build Back Better bill which will only pass with all 50 Democratic Senators voting in favor of it

The four major provisions in the House version of the Build Back Better bill (the clean electricity program, tax credits for clean energy, tax credits for EVs, and the methane fee) as well as other smaller measures are designed to reduce the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030. The four major programs account for two thirds of this reduction. Congressional leaders believe that state action in states such as California, New York, Washington, etc. will reduce emissions by another 5%, reaching President Biden’s goal of achieving a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Having adopted policies in place demonstrating that the U.S. will reduce greenhouse gases by 50% by 2030 is important as President Biden prepares for the U.N. conference in Glasgow, Scotland in early November. The Conference of Parties (COP) 26 is perhaps the world’s last best chance to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, which is the benchmark established by climate scientist for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. There’s no guarantee that if the U.S. provides leadership on climate that other countries, particularly China and India, will reform their emissions. But the opposite is probably very true. If the U.S. fails to provide global leadership on climate, it will give China and India a green light to continue their extraordinarily high emissions. 

While China’s recent decision to stop funding coal-fired power plants in other countries is a positive step in the right direction, they have not announced significant steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their own country. If the world is going to keep global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold, it will be essential for China to bring new commitments for emissions reductions to the Glasgow conference.

What happens in DC and Glasgow over the next month is crucial to address the climate crisis. You can help in this effort. We can’t impact what China does. But we have an opportunity and an obligation to try and impact Senator Manchin. Please call Senator Manchin’s office and urging him to support the Clean Electricity Performance Program, tax credits for installing clean energy, tax credits for purchasing EVs, and a fee on methane leaks at natural gas facilities. Senator Manchin’s office number in DC is 202-224-3954. Thanks.