A Huge Win for Reality-Based Climate and Energy Progress, But Permitting-Reform Fights Loom
The $370 billion in clean-energy steps only exists because of an agreement to pursue a second, bipartisan, bill streamlining permitting - something helping all energy options. Perils await.
Insert August 16 -> After decades of false starts and corporate and ideological blockades, the biggest American investment ever aimed at slowing global warming was signed into law on August 16th by President Joe Biden - bundled inside the Democrats' landmark Inflation Reduction Act.
Amid the usual round of speeches and cheers, there was a telling moment after the signing, when Biden looked to his left, then to his right, and handed his pen to Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who - for all the slings and arrows launched at him, for all his twisting and turning - was the key to this day.
Given Manchin's personal financial ties to coal and the amount of campaign contributions he receives from industry, he deserves all the scrutiny and scrubbing he's received. But he also deserves credit for muscling this package together in a way that could withstand the turbulent political tides of this midterm year and beyond. (Read my reasoning here.)
Nearly $370 billion in climate-related loans, rebates and other funding will flow over a decade, paid for mainly by boosting revenue from corporate taxes and boosting Internal Revenue Service enforcement. (That provision irked folks like former House Speaker New Gingrich.)
And of course this one-party achievement comes on top of the tens of billions of dollars heading soon to projects that will boost resilience to climate hazards - thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed in November.
In recent days I've talked to, and traded messages with, a heap of fellow long-timers focused on climate policy and, to a person, there's a sense this time really is different. For a fresh assessment of the impact on greenhouse gas emissions (and much more), check out today's updated analysis from Jesse Jenkins and the wider team at Princeton University's rapid energy policy modeling group.
As Jenkins noted on Twitter, the analysis now includes how much the tax incentives and investments will reduce oil and gas consumption, avoid deaths from air pollution and boost employment in energy supply sectors. Here's the meta point:
Download the new Princeton report on the climate provisions of the bill
Inserts, August 16 (the day Biden signs the bill into law)
The White House posted this Biden explainer.
Jeff Young, author of Appalachian Fall and founder of the journalism collaboration Ohio Valley ReSource, wrote a fabulous Twitter thread on the bill's logic and probable outcomes that I urge you to explore.
Not job done; job begun
This is not remotely job done; it's job begun.
Remember, there's a vital second act to this legislative dance.
Today's cheering would not be happening if Democrats hadn't painfully carved out a side agreement to pass an essential additional bill when Congress returns in September - one aimed at streamlining permitting processes for energy projects that many Democrats and Republicans (with different outcomes in mind) have long agreed need revision.
The tough reality is those changes would apply as much to chief bill shaper Senator Joe Manchin's beloved Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas project in the Virginias as to new wind farms off New England.
All Senate Democrats and House leadership accepted this compromise. Remember this line in my story from last weekend:
It's worth noting, as E&E News reported Friday, "Even progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) indicated she’s open to permit reforms if they speed the energy transition. 'There is something to be said that it’s not just oil and gas permitting,' Ocasio-Cortez told reporters. 'As we build out renewable infrastructure in the United States, that too will also be subject to permitting issues.'”
Of course the details of this second package have yet to emerge, other than those Manchin expressly laid out, including insuring that the Mountain Valley Pipeline ends up on a list of projects prioritized by the federal government. This is how he described what he seeks in a one-page wish list that circulated to the media a few days ago:
Require the relevant agencies to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and give the DC Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation.
It's not clear if the pipeline language will end up in the what emerges in September. Here's a snippet from draft bill language that Bloomberg Government reported was circulating in recent days. The document, which you can explore in the caption link, doesn't mention the pipeline by name.
A snippet of draft language for a permitting-reform bill posted by Bloomberg Government
Given Manchin's insistence that this contentious project get a federal boost, I would imagine it will have to be part of what emerges in the permitting reform provisions. And of course that bill will have to pass muster with at least some Republicans.
That nightmarish scenario led to this piece of art I cobbled a few days ago, when I began looking ahead and wondering how such a package can possibly become law given the intensity of opposition to pipelines on one side and determination to deny President Joe Biden any further wins on the other.
Sure enough, early this week, just as The Wall Street Journal was reporting that Republicans, despite craving permitting reform, were lining up to block the next package, liberals were doing the same.
The Wall Street Journal: Bill to Speed Energy Infrastructure Faces Resistance | Republicans threaten to block measure linked to the tax-and-climate bill approved by the Senate.
American Prospect: Permitting Reform Bill Flips Leverage to Progressives | A side deal with Joe Manchin attempts to approve a pipeline in his backyard and speed through permitting rules. Progressives should make their own conditions.
My old friend from the earliest days of this climate journey, Bill McKibben, picked up and ran with the ideas in the American Prospect commentary, which was by executive editor David Dayen. In his Crucial Years dispatch, under the headline "No One Owes Joe Manchin Anything," McKibben wrote this:
"For one thing, he’s demonstrated that promises aren’t binding: House progressives passed the fossil-friendly Bipartisan Infrastructure bill on his word that he would support what was then called Build Back Better. But Manchin reneged, gutting much of what was best in that bill, and only at the bitter end (when it became clear that his lifetime legacy would be blocking any action on the greatest crisis in history) allowing the IRA to pass the Senate."
By email, I said I was having trouble finding where Manchin hinged his support for some version of Build Back Better to progressive support of the infrastructure deal. He sent a link to a statement made by Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on December 19th, the day Manchin gave a final no to the then-$1.75-trillion package.
“Senator Joe Manchin made a promise to President Biden to support a framework that would help lower health care costs, cap the price of insulin and other prescription drugs, lower child care costs for Americans, address the climate crisis, and give working people and poor people a shot in America. Today, Senator Manchin has betrayed his commitment not only to the President and Democrats in Congress but most importantly, to the American people. He routinely touts that he is a man of his word, but he can no longer say that. West Virginians, and the country, see clearly who he is."
Sure, today's package is a fraction of that December iteration. But it certainly has each of the components she listed.
Pointing to the Wall Street Journal story, McKibben added that help could be coming from spiteful Republicans.
It’s possible, however, that progressives may not have to act alone. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier today that the GOP—still profoundly annoyed that anyone did anything to lower the planet’s temperature—has reasons of their own for potentially opposing the permitting reform.
I sure hope the second package navigates these stormy waters.
I may be an outlier among my progressive friends, but I think we owe Joe Manchin, once labeled "the most endangered Democrat in America," quite a bit.
As I wrote last Sunday, which seems a very long time ago, "The only U.S. path to climate progress is Manchin's 'two-path' energy win - boosting renewables and, yes, oil and gas."
Please weigh in below with your thoughts on this legislative saga.
The global climate reality
It's also vital to keep in mind that despite the dominance of the United States historically in building the atmosphere's burden of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, we are a small part of the emissions pie ahead.
Biden and climate Envoy John Kerry will rightfully trumpet these achievements at the United Nations General Assembly in September and the COP-27 climate treaty talks in Egypt in November.
But American action doesn't smoothly translate into global action, particularly given the profound energy needs of poor countries and the abrupt energy emergency facing Europe as Vladimir Putin plays his gas card.
Winter is coming.
Also, many African nations are fed up with American and European failures to live up to financial commitments for clean-energy development and climate adaptation promised more than a decade ago to the least developed countries.
African leaders expressed these frustrations with growing intensity at last year's COP-26 meeting in Glasgow, as I reported at the time.
Count on a louder chorus in Sharm El Sheikh, and keep in mind that COP-28 is scheduled to take place in the United Arab Emirates.
On my Sustain What webcast on energy equity and climate action last week, Johan Rockström, one of the longtime leaders in sustainability science, explained what has led to the energy gaps this bill only starts to fill.
"I really hope that COP-27 is the place where we go away from this pathetic inability to fill up the Green Climate Fund," he said. "I mean, already, $100 billion [the amount rich countries pledged to invest in poor ones each year starting in 2020] is nothing. It’s peanuts compared to the trillions we need to really mobilize, to enable developing and developed countries to really move in pace with this transition.... We have 30 years of under-investment in baseload capacities, in renewable energy technologies, in scaling alternatives to fossil fuels. And we're starting to see bottlenecks."
Listen to Rockström here and watch the full episode here:
While emission-reduction projections from consultancies like the Princeton project and the Rhodium Group sound grand (Rhodium projects "31% to 44% below 2005 levels in 2030...compared to 24% to 35% under current policy"), it's important to remember that United States emissions are now only around 13.5 percent of the global total (see Our World in Data).
That's also one reason there was never much of a "Trump Effect" on the greenhouse effect, despite many apocalyptic predictions. I wrote about that in ProPublica in December 2016 and created this graphic aimed at putting U.S. presidential power - for better or worse - in perspective.
Setting these caveats aside, this has been a great day for the climate, not to mention people struggling with drug costs and so much more. Kudos to all the legislators and staff and environmentalists and energy wonks and the rest. And to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images
The massive new incentives and investments boosting prospects for electric vehicles, energy storage, renewables deployment, sustained nuclear power production and more can build public buy-in for future initiatives.
A California reversal on nuclear power
Here's one more Friday development worth cheering. As Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times reported and tweeted late today, California Governor Gavin Newsom, facing growing pressure to avoid power shortages, "proposes keeping the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant open through 2035, and loaning PG&E $1.4 billion to help make it happen."
Roth notes that the state legislature would have to approve this within three weeks. But it sure feels like more evidence that reality-based approaches to boosting energy supplies while curbing climate change are finally getting their due.