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Learning from failures: How Biden scored win on climate plan

President Joe Biden said, ‘Our children and grandchildren will remember this for many years to come: this bill changes their lives and secures their future more than almost anything Washington has done for decades.’

By Associated Press - August 13, 2022
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Joe Biden, Jill Biden

WASHINGTON (AP) — Over the last year, President Joe Biden watched pieces of his domestic agenda get thrown overboard in an effort to keep it afloat. Free community college, child care funding, expanded preschool — all left behind.

But there was at least one critical piece that emerged largely intact, albeit not unscathed. The legislation approved by the Senate over the weekend includes nearly $400 billion for clean energy initiatives, the country’s largest-ever investment in fighting global warming.

The measure, which includes other provisions on taxes and prescription drugs, is expected to be passed by the House on Friday before going to Biden’s desk for his signature. In a statement to The Associated Press, Biden said the legislation will help fulfill his campaign promise to “build a clean energy future and create jobs for American workers building that future.”

“Our children and grandchildren will remember this for many years to come: this bill changes their lives and secures their future more than almost anything Washington has done for decades,” he said.

For the White House, the final result is proof of an approach — more focused on incentives than regulations or penalties — that was born from the failure to advance climate policy more than a decade ago, when Biden served as vice president.

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Democrats began pushing legislation that would create a cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposal would have limited emissions and forced industries to buy permits to release emissions, creating a financial incentive to operate more cleanly.

But with the economy still struggling to recover from the recession and Republicans in opposition, the legislation stalled in 2010. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who was running for Senate at the time, released a campaign advertisement in which he fired a rifle at a copy of the bill.

Christy Goldfuss, the senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, was working on Capitol Hill at the time. She said the failure was “absolutely devastating to the climate community, and really led to deep reflection and introspection.”

Another setback came in 2018, when voters in Washington state rejected a carbon tax. If the idea couldn’t even get traction in such a liberal corner of the country, Goldfuss said, what chance did it have nationally?

Stef Feldman, a domestic policy adviser, said Biden’s experience as vice president informed his thinking about climate policy when he started running for the White House in 2019.

“He had seen President Obama work very hard to get cap and trade over the finish line,” she said. “He knew that we had to try something different.”

Ali Zaidi, the deputy national climate adviser, said Biden was helped by the fact that clean energy had become more affordable and recognizable in recent years.

“This is a set of technologies and a set of solutions for which time has come,” he said. “He was able to speak to an American people who knew tangibly what this meant, and the economics lined up to propel action.”

White House officials said they made a sustained effort to build — and hold together — a coalition involving unions, environmentalists and industry. For example, Zaidi and national climate adviser Gina McCarthy went to Colorado last September for the board meeting of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents utilities. Other meetings involved autoworkers, mineworkers and clean energy companies.

Climate policy was rolled into Biden’s largest domestic agenda, which included expanded educational and safety net programs. Biden soon faced a roadblock when a central piece of his plan to push utilities off fossil fuels, known as the clean electricity standard, was left on the drawing board. Then whole thing ground to a halt when negotiations between the White House and Manchin stalled in December.

Manchin began talking again with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) this year, starting with a dinner at an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill. White House officials kept their focus on him too. Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, traveled to West Virginia with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in March.

However, negotiations began to break down again last month.

“People were holding their breath,” Zaidi said.

Behind the scenes, White House counselor Steve Ricchetti kept talking with Manchin, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Other Democratic senators kept quiet pressure on Manchin as well to bring him back to the table.

As Biden considered whether to declare a climate emergency, Manchin and Schumer resumed negotiations. They announced a deal on July 27.

Schumer acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that “climate was hard” to figure out in the negotiations. Manchin is a longtime supporter of coal and oil and Schumer said, “I knew that he would add some tough stuff in.”

Manchin successfully sought more government auctions for oil drilling on federal lands and waters. He also secured a commitment to help with a natural gas pipeline in his state.

Schumer said he had a “north star” during negotiations, which meant substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“As long as we were reducing the amount of carbon that goes into the atmosphere by 40% — Biden’s bill was 45 — we could swallow some bad stuff,” he explained.

Schumer said, “And I talked to some of my caucus members and they said, ‘Go for it, We’ll have your back if you have to swallow bad stuff to get a good bill.'”

The final package of climate proposals has been trimmed from the original $555 billion plan, but it’s still brimming with financial incentives for clean energy.

Manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines would earn companies tax credits. More money would help Americans buy electric vehicles or make their homes energy efficient.

“The bill gives people the tools to be part of the climate solution, and have that make sense for their pocketbook,” Feldman said.

There are still some sticks to go along with the carrots.

A crucial element of the bill would charge oil and gas companies fees for excess methane emissions at drilling sites. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a key contributor to global warming and packs a stronger short-term climate punch than even carbon dioxide.

The methane fee was top priority of Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), a close Biden ally.

“If we want to make real progress on climate change in a short time, a great place to start is methane,” Carper said in an interview.

But in a sign of the crucial role played by Manchin, the final version of the bill includes a grant program that rewards energy companies that take steps to lower methane emissions at drilling sites.

Carper called the provision a compromise, noting that he and his staff worked with Manchin to address a series of “concerns raised by Joe on behalf of the oil and gas industry.”

Regardless of the compromises, environmentalists were thrilled by the outcome after girding themselves for another setback.

“This is a legacy-defining win for this administration and a signature achievement for the entire climate community who contributed to it,” said Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “After years of inaction in Congress we are now making remarkable and historic progress.”


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