US Climate Leadership Imperiled as Build Back Better Act Is Derailed

When the Biden administration and congressional Democrats revealed the climate change elements of the Build Back Better Act, environmentalist groups in the United States and around the world celebrated. The proposed $555 billion investment in renewable energy and other climate-friendly efforts would have been the largest in history, and it came with a promise that America would lead the way toward a greener future. 

On Sunday, though, that leadership role seemed to be suddenly snatched away, with the announcement by Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, that he would not support the bill.

Manchin has long made it known that he disagrees with some elements of the package, but he had been negotiating with his fellow Democrats as well as President Joe Biden as recently as a few days ago. White House officials reacted angrily to the announcement, which Manchin made in a Sunday morning television appearance, saying that his withdrawal of support amounted to a betrayal of a commitment he had made to the president. 

Manchin’s home state of West Virginia is disproportionately reliant on the fossil fuel industry for jobs and energy. A primary goal of the climate elements of the Build Back Better Act is to create economic incentives for American energy companies to transition away from fossil fuels. 

The $555 billion in climate spending in the bill was considered crucial to the U.S. being able to achieve its Nationally Determined Contribution – the reduction in emissions the U.S. pledged when it rejoined the Paris Climate agreement early this year. The pledge was to reduce total emissions to between 50% and 52% of 2005 levels by 2030. 

Blow to U.S. climate leadership 

John Noël, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace USA, called failure to pass the Build Back Better Act a “devastating” blow to the Biden administration’s ability to take a global leadership role on climate issues.

“It’s definitely hard for other countries to take us seriously when we talk such a big game on emissions cuts and try to show leadership, and then go back home and things are at a gridlock at the legislative level,” he told VOA. 

Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told VOA that another about-face on climate policy by the U.S. risks creating a sense of pessimism about the possibility of progress. 

“The [European Union], for instance, has had so much historical whiplash from the U.S. joining the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the Kyoto Protocol, joining the Paris agreement, and leaving the Paris agreement … that this may sort of hit a groove that creates excessive pessimism.” 

Progress still possible 

Mehling, however, cautioned against assuming that all is necessarily lost.

“As always, with these kinds of Beltway politics, we’ll see the Senate regroup and the Democrats regroup in January, and there will probably be another version,” Mehling said. “That’s probably going to tone it down some more, make some more cuts. But it’s probably not all or nothing.” 

He also pointed out that there is still a lot that the Biden administration can do to address emissions by using executive orders and regulatory action rather than legislation. For example, he noted that the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to issue stricter emissions requirements for cars and light trucks. 

Noël, of Greenpeace, agreed, saying that Biden has alternatives. 

“Now that we know that Manchin is not going to cooperate, not going to do anything to help the Biden administration meet its greenhouse gas emissions goals and climate goals via legislation, that gives Biden a mandate to go all in on executive actions and do whatever it takes within his authority to constrain an out-of-control fossil fuel industry,” Noël said. 

Manchin’s concerns 

Manchin listed a number of reasons for his objections to the Build Back Better Act. Some were fiscal in nature. He said that he is concerned that the bill will add to the national debt and pointed out that many of the programs in the proposal have artificial “sunset” dates that make cost estimates come into line with Democratic promises that the bill would be fully paid for. 

Manchin argues that his colleagues don’t really plan on allowing provisions in the bill to expire, and that the true cost is therefore being hidden. 

Additionally, he has expressed concern about some of the nonclimate elements of the proposal, including a permanent expansion of a refundable child tax credit, implemented during the pandemic, that provides millions of American households with monthly checks worth several hundred dollars per child. 

Electrical grid worry 

However, some of Manchin’s stated concerns left experts puzzled. For example, the West Virginia Democrat claimed that the Build Back Better Act would “risk the reliability of our electric grid” by trying to transition to renewable energy more rapidly. He pointed to power outages in Texas and California over the past few years, saying similar crises would result from implementing the Build Back Better Act. 

Historically, objections to the transition to renewable energy have included the concern that the intermittent nature of some renewable power, like solar and wind, might mean power isn’t available when Americans need it most.

Experts disagreed sharply, arguing that the climate portions of the bill would make large investments in strengthening the U.S. electrical grid. 

“The Build Back Better Act would provide some key provisions like transmission support that would improve the reliability of the grid,” said Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies, a consulting firm that works on electricity transmission issues.

“Utilities in the industry have shown they can operate perfectly reliably with high penetration of wind and solar energy in the system, and Build Back Better advances wind and solar energy to get closer to climate goals,” Gramlich told VOA. “That shouldn’t, in any way, harm reliability.” 

Coal country support 

Manchin, as a senator from West Virginia, represents a constituency that has historically relied on the fossil fuel industry for many of its jobs. The state has large coal mining and natural gas extraction industries, which wield significant political power. 

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his organization is grateful that Manchin blocked the bill. 

“We are fully supportive of the senator’s actions and his strong opposition to the Build Back Better legislation,” Hamilton told VOA. “We think that this provides a lot of relief to a lot of West Virginia workers, particularly those that work within the fossil fuel industries.” 

Manchin also has deep personal connections to the coal industry. He owns between $1 million and $5 million in shares of Enersystems, a coal brokerage that he founded. The company is now run by his son. Enersystems has paid him nearly $5 million over the past decade. 

When asked about this apparent conflict of interest, Manchin has historically protested that his assets are held in a blind trust. However, his Senate financial disclosure forms expressly name Enersystems. 

Republicans praise Manchin 

Republicans in Congress were quick to praise Manchin on Sunday for his decision to block the Biden administration’s top legislative priority. 

“President Biden’s mega-spending bill is dead and Joe Manchin put the nail in the coffin,” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said in a statement. “With a divided country, a 50-50 Senate, and blowout inflation, the American people don’t want to upend this country with nakedly partisan legislation.” 

Manchin has the ability to single-handedly scuttle the Build Back Better Act because the 100-member Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats have control because Vice President Kamala Harris has the authority to cast tie-breaking votes.

But because most Senate business requires a 60-vote majority to overcome the delaying tactic known as the “filibuster,” Democrats have only a small number of opportunities to pass legislation with a simple majority. The Build Back Better Act takes advantage of one of those, in a process called “budget reconciliation.” 

 

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