The Only U.S. Path to Climate Progress is Manchin's "Two-Path" Energy Win - Boosting Renewables and, Yes, Oil and Gas
Some excerpts from the West Virginia Democrat's online news conference reveal the many dimensions of compromise at play in forging the biggest U.S. clean-energy investment ever.
Make sure to catch the update: A Huge Win for Reality-Based Climate and Energy Progress, But Permitting-Reform Fights Loom
UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom for valuable insights from journalists and experts including Judd Legum, Kelly Sims Gallagher, Roger Pielke, Jr., and David Kerley.
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It says everything that America's biggest single clean-energy investment ever is hidden in a remarkable 725-page reconciliation bill called The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
As with the massive climate-resilience investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we're seeing proof that building a safer human relationship with the climate system doesn't have to, or actually may never, come through climate-centered politics.
This doesn't mean my friends campaigning for a climate emergency should stop (and course they won't; read Bill McKibben's latest). It just means it's worth gauging progress by looking at outcomes more than labels.
Just as it's worth marking January 7th - the day America survived an insurrection - as much as January 6th - it's worth paying more attention to July 27, when key Senate Democrats settled on $369 billion in climate-related provisions in a historic reconciliation package, than July 15th, when everything seemed to fall apart.
Washington works in strange ways. And things get even stranger when the goal is a package this big and a process this rare - one party avoiding a filibuster using artful bill architecture.
Of course compromise is never pretty. The package provisions relevant to America's, and the world's, climate and energy future have ended up being a stew more than haute cuisine - including mandates for oil and gas leasing tied to opening federal lands and waters to solar and wind expansion.
And the package was only negotiated with the guarantee of a September bill streamlining permitting for energy projects. Those changes will apply as much to chief bill shaper Senator Joe Manchin's beloved Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas project in West Virginia as to new wind farms off New England.
Environmental groups have predictably split in their reactions to the fossil-boosting compromises.
As Inside Climate News reported, the litigation-focused Center for Biological Diversity labeled the bill a "climate suicide pact" in large part because two sections mandated oil and gas leases accompany any opening of federal lands or offshore waters for renewable energy. Despite those and other such elements, Manish Bapta, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it "the ultimate clean energy comeback - the strongest climate action yet at the moment we need it most" and "a package we can’t afford to reject.”
No surprise, I'm with Bapta, even though I've described the case for aggressive action cutting greenhouse gases for 33 years.
Multiple crises are playing out simultaneously. None can be ignored. Manchin, the pivotal West Virginia Democrat whose imprint is all over the fossil components of the bill that emerged, was right in his online news conference on Thursday when he said Vladimir Putin has "weaponized energy like no other time I have ever seen" - in large part because the West had let him do so. Here's the relevant clip:
While hard greens and litigation-focused environmental groups have banded together to fight the fossil-friendly elements, 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.'”
It's an amazing package for clean energy.
I asked Princeton's Jesse Jenkins, a vital dissector and shaper of climate and energy policy, last night what he thought of the leasing provisions. "This is a bummer and will make things harder," he replied. "But it's dwarfed by the emissions impacts of the bill. This is unquestionably a compromise to take."
In media interviews, Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and renewable-energy analyst and campaigner, noted the lease sales are optional, and a "small emissions penalty or payment compared to huge pollution cuts on the other side of the ledger."
Of course the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is not yet a done deal. Set a Google news alert for "climate deal Sinema" to keep track.
But it's becoming refreshingly evident that America still works.
A big reason? The Democratic Party still works.
And one big reason, it seems, is that liberals are learning to tolerate, if not love, the role Joe Manchin has played in reminding them that not all voters live on a coast or center the climate emergency - particularly in these rough days of spiking prices and economic uncertainty.
Back in April I wrote a piece hinting at this outcome. In May, I tweeted more on this, saying, I’m with @mattyglesias [Matty Yglesias of course] on the need for progressives to understand the value in having him in the party.
Let's look a little deeper at the underlying countercurrents on energy, climate and political viability. Manchin's reality is America's reality, and, to my eye at least, not nearly as much a function of his coal investments as his constituents' worries and the challenges fending off Republican extremes.
As I've said before, President Joe Biden has faced a wrenching bind trying to forge energy and climate policies that are sustainable politically, address geopolitical energy shocks triggered by Vladimir Putin's atrocities and still accelerate efforts to build a safer human relationship with the climate.
You've seen this play out repeatedly through the year as energy impacts of Russia's Ukraine invasion, inflation and rumbles of recession have imperiled Democrats' tenuous hold on power and thus any prospect of climate action sufficiently enduring to matter. (Click back to my January 2021 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists commentary on the vital need for a long game on climate.)
With that in mind, imagine the bind faced by Manchin, who in 2018, despite being labeled "the most endangered Democrat in America" given then-President Trump's potent attacks, held onto the seat he first won in 2012.
Manchin deserves lots of criticism for months of "weather vane" waffling on a climate and energy package, to use a description offered in a New York Times op-ed by Leah Stokes.
But after months of parrying, posturing and, seemingly, complete breakdown, he, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and others did end up pulling off an epic achievement in crafting and cobbling a deal on everything from inflation to drug prices and taxes to energy security and climate change.
Not only that, as I'm sure you've tracked, they did so in a way that side-stepped a threatened blockade by Senator Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republican minority.
There's likely a mix of strategy, personality and serendipity in how the end game played out. I encourage you, when you have time, to watch the Zoom news conference Manchin held with a mix of West Virginia and national reporters to get a better feel for the man and the forces at play.
So much more is revealed than in the pull quotes and sound bites that end up in news reports.
I've posted a rough transcription here. Here's a key passage (the one I quoted above):
"Now we have a two path [approach] on energy security. You have to be energy secure and you have to be energy independent if you want to be a superpower in the world. That's what China does and that's what Russia has had. And there are two nemeses right now, both large nuclear adversaries of ours. And with that, Putin weaponized weaponized energy like no other time I've ever seen - used it as a weapon. I think Xi Jinping will do the same with rare earth minerals. And I believe that we have to be able to to defend ourselves by being independent and having a robust fossil industry, streamline our permitting processes so we can get into the game quick, whether it's to build out more transmission and more pipelines, or whether it's to build out basically what's needed for our new transition of clean technology. So we can walk and chew gum, I think, and basically benefit and help the world immensely, but also keep America strong and protected. That's how we got to where we are."
Updates via Twitter
Judd Legum has posted a troubling piece noting a seeming conflict at GM. CEO Mary Barra, he writes, "presents herself as deeply committed to addressing climate change But now she's leading a campaign to defeat the largest climate investment in history. What gives?"
He shows how the lobbying organization Business Roundtable, which Barra charis, is fighting the bill because it raises the corporate tax on a handful of huge companies - GM included: "There are ~32 MILLION businesses in the United States. But just 70 have profits over $1 billion and pay an income tax rate of less than 15% One of them is @GM."
David Kerley, who covers transportation from orbit to your local freeway so well at Full Throttle, posted a super-helpful deep dive on the bill's components related to electric vehicles.
In an email, Kelly Sims Gallagher, a veteran climate policy analyst and former Obama administration climate diplomacy adviser, said the package is a big step but feels real progress still requires something that I don't see possible in the United States - a bipartisan climate change law. I've posted her note in full as a comment. Feel free to chime in there. On Twitter, Gallagher noted that a greenhouse gas reduction fund in the climate provisions in the bill is close to the model she and propose for a U.S. Green Bank akin to international development banks, saying "it could be one of most important events of bill to make US economy greener and fairer."
Roger Pielke, Jr., a climate and environmental policy scholar and writer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has posted a prod to policy-impact modelers like Jesse Jenkins at Princeton and the Rhodium Group to clarify the assumptions that generated their enthusiastic assessments of the emissions impact of the package. I'll report back.
Also watch the most recent Friday Sustain What news review, which was hosted this week by my colleague Dale Willman, to learn more about this bill and also the more specific challenges and choices ahead if the United States is to build a grid that can handle renewable energy at climate-relevant scale:
His guests were Nushin Huq, an independent energy journalist, and David R. Hill, an adjunct senior research scholar Columbia's Center on Global Energy Policy who from 2012 to 2018 was executive vice president of NRG Energy, which at the time was one of the largest generators of both conventional and renewable electricity in the United States.
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