The Fuse

Democrats Push Ambitious Climate Agenda in Infrastructure Package

by Nick Cunningham | July 20, 2021

Senate Democrats are moving forward with a sweeping infrastructure package that will include a long list of climate and energy provisions aimed at accelerating the clean energy transition.

Passage of the $3.5 trillion proposal in a 50-50 split in the Senate will face enormous challenges, but as climate disasters proliferate around the globe, the sense of urgency is growing.

The climate reconciliation bill

In June, a bipartisan group of Senators agreed on a relatively modest infrastructure bill mostly focused on roads, bridges, ports and the like. The proposed $1.2 trillion outline (with only $579 billion in new spending) contained token investments in clean energy, transit, and electric vehicle infrastructure, but largely eschewed the far-reaching investments, regulations and new programs aimed at ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions that climate campaigners and scientists have said are necessary.

But a second $3.5 trillion package that Democrats are pushing on their own now appears to be moving forward. The so-called reconciliation process allows for passage with a simple majority, but it only can include budget-related items.

While legislators have not yet written the text of the bill, the outlines are ambitious. It would include money for EVs, renewable energy, public transit, weatherization programs, wildfire prevention and mitigation, and also a fee on methane emissions.

One of the key provisions will be a clean electricity standard, which would shift the U.S. electricity system to 80 percent clean electricity by 2030.

One of the key provisions will be a clean electricity standard, which would shift the U.S. electricity system to 80 percent clean electricity by 2030. Such a standard would dramatically slash emissions in the power sector, and it has a great deal of support in corporate America. In early July, a group of more than 75 large companies signed a letter in favor of a clean electricity standard, which included tech giants Apple and Google, but also Exelon and General Motors. One study found that a clean electricity standard would have vast economic and public health benefits.

The sticking point is that the standard needs to meet budgetary requirements to be eligible for the reconciliation package, so the details need to be designed around fiscal carrots and sticks rather than a mandate. Democrats believe they can design a program that would pass muster with the budgetary rules.

Another key part of the reconciliation package would be the establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps modeled after the iconic New Deal-era program. The 21st century version would employ people to equip the country for the challenges ahead, such as clearing brush to mitigate wildfire risk, retrofitting homes with energy efficiency technologies, distributing aid during disasters, and restoring coastal wetlands to buffer against severe storms, to name a few examples. The summer of 2021 has been characterized by extreme heat, wildfires, and floods – offering vivid illustrations of why an updated conservation corps is needed.

Yet another significant proposal would be a carbon border tax, mirroring a European proposal. The details are vague at this point, but the idea would be to tax imports of carbon-intensive commodities – such as oil, gas, and coal, along with steel, cement, and aluminum – from countries that are not regulating carbon in some way. 

Climate disasters multiply

The text of the bill has not been written yet, so the negotiations remain in flux and the details will certainly be subject to change. Already, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has voiced some discomfort with the ambition of the package, saying that he was “disturbed” at the efforts to wind down fossil fuel use. At the same time, he also suggested that he did not want to stand in the way of the reconciliation effort in a broad sense.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan effort has run into serious trouble, with disagreements over how to pay for the proposal. At the time of this writing, the package was heading for a procedural vote on July 21, and appears destined to fall short of the 60 votes needed. It’s unclear how this will impact the reconciliation effort, which is proceeding along a parallel track.

But the backdrop to the inside-the-beltway negotiations is a disturbing spread of epic climate disasters. The June heat dome event in the Pacific Northwest broke temperature records, and not just by a little, but by huge margins. British Columbia suffered temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, only to see a town wiped off the map from a wildfire.

The heat dome event spread alarm even among climate scientists, who up until recently expected heat waves of such severity to be a reality later this century, not now.

The heat dome event spread alarm even among climate scientists, who up until recently expected heat waves of such severity to be a reality later this century, not now. Since the June heat wave, several more have occurred in the American West, and as of mid-July, dozens of wildfires have erupted with a ferocious speed and geographic breadth. The wildfire season will carry on for several more months, and with severe drought and dry fuels, more disasters lie ahead.

But it isn’t just the arid American West. Germany and Belgium suffered recently suffered catastrophic flooding events, which has killed at least 165 people. The disaster has roiled German politics ahead of an election that will see a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. All major candidates have vowed to accelerate decarbonization efforts in the wake of the floods.

The deluge also came just hours after the European Union unveiled a suite of proposals to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decade. Climate scientists have also expressed shock at the severity of the European floods, fearing that climate destabilization is unfolding ahead of schedule.

The disasters underscore the urgency of decarbonization. The climate and energy provisions in the reconciliation package before the U.S. Congress are only part of a broader effort, but they are the most vital attempt on the table that could help the U.S. cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030. If Congress misses this opportunity, they may not get another chance again for years, at least not of the size and scope of the one currently under consideration.