Key to Biden’s Climate Agenda Likely to Be Cut Because of Manchin Opposition
The West Virginia Democrat told the White House he is firmly against a clean electricity program that is the muscle behind the president’s plan to battle climate change.
WASHINGTON — The most powerful part of President Biden’s climate agenda — a program to rapidly replace the nation’s coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear energy — will likely be dropped from the massive budget bill pending in Congress, according to congressional staffers and lobbyists familiar with the matter.
Senator Joe Manchin III, the Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia whose vote is crucial to passage of the bill, has told the White House that he strongly opposes the clean electricity program, according to three of those people. As a result, White House staffers are now rewriting the legislation without that climate provision, and are trying to cobble together a mix of other policies that could also cut emissions.
A White House spokesman, Vedant Patel, declined to comment on the specifics of the bill, saying, “the White House is laser focused on advancing the president’s climate goals and positioning the United States to meet its emission targets in a way that grows domestic industries and good jobs.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Manchin, Sam Runyon, wrote in an email, “Senator Manchin has clearly expressed his concerns about using taxpayer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing. He continues to support efforts to combat climate change while protecting American energy independence and ensuring our energy reliability.”
West Virginia’s other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, said she was “vehemently opposed” to the clean electricity program because it is “designed to ultimately eliminate coal and natural gas from our electricity mix, and would be absolutely devastating for my state.”
The $150 billion clean electricity program was the muscle behind Mr. Biden’s ambitious climate agenda. It would reward utilities that switched from burning fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and penalize those that do not.
Experts have said that the policy over the next decade would drastically reduce the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet and that it would be the strongest climate change policy ever enacted by the United States.
“This is absolutely the most important climate policy in the package,” said Leah Stokes, an expert on climate policy, who has been advising Senate Democrats on how to craft the program. “We fundamentally need it to meet our climate goals. That’s just the reality. And now we can’t. So this is pretty sad.”
The setback also means that President Biden will have a weakened hand when he travels to Glasgow in two weeks for a major United Nations climate change summit. He had hoped to point to the clean electricity program as evidence that the United States, which is historically the largest emitter of planet-warming pollution, was serious about changing course and leading a global effort to fight climate change. Mr. Biden has vowed that the United States will cut its emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
The rest of the world remains deeply wary of the country’s commitment to tackling global warming after four years in which former President Donald J. Trump openly mocked the science of climate change and enacted policies that encouraged more drilling and burning of fossil fuels.
“This will create a huge problem for the White House in Glasgow,” said David G. Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego. “If you see the president coming in and saying all the right things with all the right aspirations, and then one of the earliest tests of whether he can deliver falls apart, it creates the question of whether you can believe him.”
Democrats had hoped to include the clean electricity program in their sweeping budget bill that would also expand the social safety net, which they plan to muscle through using a fast-track process known as reconciliation that would allow them to pass it without any Republican votes. The party is still trying to figure out how to pass that budget bill, along with a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
For weeks, Democratic leaders have vowed that the clean electricity program was a nonnegotiable part of the legislation. Progressive Democrats held rallies chanting “No climate, no deal!”
Mr. Biden had hoped that enactment of the legislation would clean up the electricity sector, which produces about a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gases. He wanted a program with impacts that would last well after he leaves office, regardless of who occupies the White House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at an event in San Francisco Friday morning that she was still pushing for the strongest possible climate change provisions in the bill.
“What we’re here today about is specifically about the climate piece,” said the California Democrat. “This is our moment. We cannot — we don’t have any more time to wait.”
Democratic presidents have tried but failed to enact climate change legislation since the Clinton administration. During a year of record and deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and floods that scientists say are worsened by climate change, Democrats had hoped to finally garner enough political support to enact a strong climate law, even as scientific reports say that the window is rapidly closing to avoid the most devastating impacts of a warming planet.
A major scientific report released in August concluded that countries must immediately shift away from burning fossil fuels in order to avoid a future of severe drought, intense heat waves, water shortages, devastating storms, rising seas and ecosystem collapse. To avert catastrophe, scientists say nations must keep the average global temperature from increasing 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But as countries continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the average global temperature has already risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius.
Even as Ms. Pelosi vowed in San Francisco to protect those climate provisions, at least four people in Washington close to the negotiations called the clean electricity program “dead.”
Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota and the chief author of the program, said that while dropping it might win Mr. Manchin’s vote on the budget bill, it could cost hers — and those of other Democrats focused on the environment.
“We must have strong climate action in the Build Back Better budget,” she said. “I’m open to all approaches, but as I’ve said, I will not support a budget deal that does not get us where we need to go on climate action. There are 50 Democratic senators and it’s going to take every one of our votes to get this budget passed.”
Mr. Manchin, who has personal financial ties to the coal industry, had initially intended to write the details of the program as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Mr. Manchin was considering a clean electricity program that would reward utilities for switching from coal to natural gas, which is less polluting but still emits carbon dioxide and can leak methane, another greenhouse gas. Mr. Manchin’s home state, West Virginia, is one of the nation’s top producers of coal and gas.
But in recent days Mr. Manchin indicated to the administration that he was now completely opposed to a clean energy program, people familiar with the discussions said.
As a result, White House staffers are scrambling to calculate the impact on emissions from other climate measures in the bill, including tax incentives for renewable energy producers and tax credits for consumers who purchase electric vehicles. Unlike a clean energy program, tax incentives tend to expire after a set period of time, and do not have the market-shifting power of a more durable strategy.
Those other programs include about $300 billion to extend existing tax credits for utilities, commercial businesses and homeowners that use or generate electricity from zero-carbon sources such as wind and solar, and $32 billion in tax credits for individuals who purchase electric vehicles. It could also include $13.5 billion for electric car charging stations and $9 billion to update the electric grid, making it more conducive to transmitting wind and solar power, as well as $17.5 billion to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from federal buildings and vehicles.
But, analysts say, while those spending programs will help make it easier and cheaper for the U.S. economy to transition to a lower-emissions future, they are unlikely to lead to the same kind of rapid reduction in emissions that the clean electricity program would have.
“To clean up the electricity system as rapidly as possible, you need an incentive to add clean energy, and a penalty that is a disincentive for dirty sources of energy, ” Mr. Victor said. “A carrot and stick. These tax incentives are carrots. But there’s no more stick.”
It is also possible that Democrats may try to push through the clean electricity program as a stand-alone bill — but the timeline for doing so is narrowing, with the 2022 midterm elections approaching.
Emily Cochrane and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.