Environmental groups are blitzing Capitol Hill this week to press Democrats to seize their last best chance to pass party-line legislation to tame climate change.
Even though climate advocates have dramatically scaled back their expectations from the early days of the Biden administration, the effort is aimed at salvaging the core clean energy components of the Build Back Better bill that Sen. Joe Manchin quashed in December.
Last year, environmental groups had supported the full breadth of President Joe Biden’s agenda, viewing it as consistent with the “Green New Deal” strategy to link environmental action with related investments in education, health care and affordable housing.
Now, many environmentalists say it's time to toss in the towel on some of the progressives' social policies in order to secure a narrower deal on Manchin’s terms.
“We have no doubt this is the last chance to get reconciliation done,” said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy with the Center for American Progress. “We are talking years if not another decade before we get another opportunity. It’s either going to come together now around that framework that Manchin has said he has agreed to, or it’s over. We feel the finality of this across the climate movement.”
The West Virginia centrist, who chairs the powerful Energy Committee, recently reopened the door to a smaller reconciliation package by publicly outlining a framework to address climate change using tax breaks for a bevy of clean energy technologies while also rolling back Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts and reforming prescription drug pricing.
But Manchin is also pressing Biden to restart new offshore oil and gas lease sales and expedite exports of natural gas to increase U.S. energy security and lower inflated energy prices caused by supply chain constraints and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Green organizations are inclined to accept a trade-off for legislation that helps speed the growth of clean energy that offers a short-term boost for fossil fuels in order to reach a deal by Memorial Day, fearing that any chance for climate action will be stymied if Republicans win control of one or both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections.
“There may be a price to be paid on the [oil and gas] supply side, and it might hurt,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club.
It is shaping up to be a moment of reckoning for the climate movement.
At the beginning of Biden’s term, environmental groups joined arms with progressive allies to pressure Democrats to make historic investments across climate, labor, public health and justice initiatives.
They cheered as Democrats in the House in November passed a $2.2 trillion version of the Build Back Better Act containing a full suite of policies including expanding health and child care access, providing universal pre-K, extending the Child Tax Credit and devoting a record $555 billion for fighting climate change.
But Manchin killed the Senate's version of that bill in December, dashing the hopes of climate hawks and forcing them to wrestle with tough choices over what policies to prioritize.
Environmental groups insist their progressive coalition remains banded together, even as they emphasize that Democrats should focus on passing a narrower bill that includes clean energy incentives without other social policies.
And they say the U.S. needs to act fast, since both domestic and global emissions are far off the track that climate scientists say is necessary to avoid baking in catastrophic effects from climate change.
“We are part of a broad and diverse coalition that is pushing for as much progress as possible. It appears that what’s possible is a narrower package. I don’t think of it as we’re abandoning other priorities. We are trying to maximize progress and meet the moment on climate,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters. “This is it, this is our shot. We’ve got to get it done.”
Other environmental leaders are resigned to the legislative reality that Senate Democrats have to cede to Manchin’s demands, or risk passing none of their agenda.
“I don’t think we are driving the direction as the climate community,” said David Kieve, president of Environmental Defense Fund Action, who was a top Biden administration environmental official until January. “Sen. Manchin has been pretty clear about where his bright lines are. A few parts of the president’s agenda won't be included in that. But all of us are at a point of ‘where does the rubber meet the road?’ The alternative would be to get nothing.”
Climate activists are optimistic Manchin will continue to back the hundreds of billions in expanded clean energy tax subsidies included in the defunct bill. Those credits were aimed mainly at wind and solar, but also support other technologies favored by Manchin, such as nuclear power, hydrogen and carbon capture.
Climate advocates already have given up a lot, Sittenfeld noted. Manchin nixed the most aggressive policy, a program that would have paid electric utilities to deploy clean energy and penalize those that don’t. Other items, such as fining oil and gas producers for methane leaks or banning offshore drilling, appear unlikely to be included in any legislation.
And more sacrifice will probably be needed to keep Manchin’s support, Pierce noted, since he has spoken openly about boosting U.S. oil and gas production to counter Russian energy and influence.
Biden has set a goal for curbing U.S. greenhouse gases 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a target that will be extremely difficult to reach without legislation. Senior administration officials last week contended there are still multiple paths to hit that mark without Congress, though they did not provide details.
Among the groups making a new push on Capitol Hill is Evergreen Action, a climate group started by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s former aides. It has prodded senators to commit to prioritizing passing climate policies, according to two people familiar with the group’s conversations.
“The next step is prioritization — and demanding prioritization — knowing of the urgency of the timescales that we’re looking at,” said Evergreen Action Executive Director Jamal Raad. “There’s going to be hard choices.”
Two Senate Democratic aides, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations around the potential legislation, said the demands of environmental groups have come through loud and clear in recent discussions.
“The climate advocates based on our conversations are very pragmatic and just want to see any way you can get the climate pieces across the finish line. We have communicated that carrying climate pieces with one or two other things is a way to do that,” said one Senate Democratic aide, who listed drug pricing reform and health care subsidies as two other policy areas that Manchin could support.
Not all environmentalists are on board with Democrats’ shrinking their ambitions in pursuit of a deal with Manchin.
Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and co-founder of 350.org, argued that a package centered around clean energy tax credits would not do enough to inspire young voters who backed Biden and Democrats for their broad social policy agenda.
“Voters want to see Democrats deliver on what they promised,” Henn said. “That means passing a big package that prioritizes climate justice, invests in programs that help low-income families, and excludes any more handouts for fossil fuels. We know Democrats can't pass the entire Green New Deal all at once, but it's Politics 101 that the more popular things you package together, the more popular the package becomes.”
Other climate activists, though, say the clean energy incentives would be a significant driver for new solar and wind and go a long way to meeting Biden’s climate promises, which were a big driver of youth turnout.
“The clean energy tax credits and investments are incredibly powerful. That is a story we can tell if reconciliation were to get done,” Goldfuss said.
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