Can Biden Get a Coal-State Democrat on Board With His Climate Agenda?

Source: By Giovanni Russonello, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Ultimately, what Democrats are able to pass will depend on Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia is chairman of the powerful Senate Energy Committee.
Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

A heat wave is engulfing much of the United States this week, and temperatures across the West have soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s another reminder of why President Biden acknowledged the climate crisis as an “existential threat” throughout his campaign, and why it’s remained high on his agenda as president.

But just as the mercury was rising last week, Mr. Biden appeared outside the White House to announce that he had reached a deal with centrist senators on an infrastructure package that would significantly trim what had been his main vehicle for confronting climate change.

The biggest climate-related proposals in the initial bill, the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, are nowhere to be found in the compromise proposal.

Mr. Biden has said he plans to follow it with another bill, which would focus on care industry workers and other elements of “human infrastructure,” and would be more likely to pass with only Democratic votes. Climate activists are now pinning their hopes to that legislation.

“We in the advocacy community are really focused on the second part of this, which we think is going to be more ambitious and bolder on the climate issues,” Elizabeth Gore, the vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview. “We are looking at that as our primary focus for our advocacy.”

But there is no guarantee that the future bill will include the kinds of provisions that advocates say are necessary to containing emissions in the power and transportation sectors. And ultimately, what’s included in that legislation will largely be up to Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the most conservative Democratic senator — who represents one of the states that are most heavily reliant on the carbon energy industry, and who himself has close ties to it.

It was Mr. Manchin’s insistence on finding bipartisan compromise that scuttled the White House’s hopes of passing the American Jobs Plan through the process of budgetary reconciliation, which would remove the need for Republican votes. Now that Mr. Manchin and a crew of moderate senators have hammered out a compromise on infrastructure, it remains to be seen whether he will support an ambitious, Democrats-only proposal to reel in fossil fuels.

If he did so, it would go against many of the patterns he has established as a legislator.

Mr. Manchin won election to the Senate in 2010, swimming against the tide of West Virginia’s Republican shift, partly thanks to a TV ad in which he shot a bullet into a copy of President Barack Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal.

By then Mr. Manchin had already made millions from his involvement with the coal brokerage firm Enersystems, which he had helped run before entering politics, and which continued to pay him dividends thereafter.

Once in office, he often voted to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers, though — as a reputedly strategic legislator — he rarely cast a deciding vote. As a member of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he now chairs, he has worked to increase energy efficiency in buildings and machinery, while supporting some investment in clean-energy technologies. But he has also emphasized, as he did during a committee hearing this year, that “fossil fuels aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

In addition to its longtime reliance on the coal industry, West Virginia now has a congressional delegation that is entirely Republican aside from Mr. Manchin, and the state’s voters are typically steeped in conservative media and talking points. This year, Americans for Prosperity — the political action committee heavily funded by Charles Koch — spent heavily on advertisements urging Mr. Manchin to oppose ending the filibuster. The group also brought protesters to the state capitol in Charleston.

These pressures, as well as his history as an ally of the coal industry and other business interests, help to explain why Mr. Manchin has insisted on bipartisanship. “I think he’s committed to finding solutions in this area, but his path has to reflect his state and constituents and families and communities in West Virginia,” Ms. Gore said.

To that end, in his work on the energy committee, Mr. Manchin has put a heavy emphasis on “emissions reduction through innovation, not elimination,” Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, said in an interview.

Mr. O’Mara is in constant communication with Mr. Manchin on energy- and climate-related negotiations, and said that he considered much of Mr. Manchin’s hesitation to be sincerely based in concern for Appalachian workers who had been hit hard by the closing of coal mines across the state.

“It all comes back to West Virginia workers,” Mr. O’Mara said. “Every single question — and where he is on every single policy — can be viewed through that rubric. And he’s dead-serious about not allowing the folks that powered the last century to be left behind.”

What’s in the bipartisan compromise

Mr. Biden entered the presidency promising historic investments in clean energy and green jobs. He committed on Day 1 to rejoining the Paris climate accord. Soon afterward, he pledged to cut the United States’ carbon emissions in half (from 2005 levels) within the next nine years. And when he unveiled his American Jobs Plan, climate advocates hailed its focus on shifting the energy grid away from fossil fuels.

But the compromise proposal unveiled on Thursday, which the White House labeled the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, contained just a shadow of the climate-related proposals that were in the American Jobs Plan.

The bipartisan deal would invest over $100 billion in roads, bridges and other major projects; $66 billion in train lines; roughly $50 billion in public transit; and $55 billion for water infrastructure. It would also aim to guarantee broadband internet access to all Americans. Yet few of its provisions would directly fight carbon emissions through alterations to the tax code or by establishing of national standards.

The deal wouldn’t phase out fossil fuel subsidies or institute a federal clean-electricity standard, as the American Jobs Plan had proposed. New tax credits for clean energy and billions of dollars in research funding were also left out of the compromise.

In a statement, a Manchin spokeswoman called the bipartisan deal “a major investment in clean energy and the high-quality jobs that come with it, as well as a pragmatic step forward on the long-term solutions to climate change.” The spokeswoman, Sam Runyon, pointed to the deal’s provisions investing in clean-energy innovation and supply chains.

But this afternoon, climate activists organized by the Sunrise Movement gathered outside the White House to express their dissatisfaction with the compromise bill, and to present a series of demands.

“Passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill on its own is not enough to combat the climate crisis,” J.P. Mejía, one of the organizers, said in a phone interview, taking a pause from the demonstration. “It actually propels us even closer to the crisis that the Biden administration promised to take us away from.”

Mr. O’Mara, of the National Wildlife Federation, said that the Biden administration wouldn’t be able to “get anywhere close” to cutting emissions in half by 2030 without tax credits for clean energy and national clean-electricity standards — elements he said would be crucial as Democrats worked on a follow-up bill.

On to the next bill?

When he announced the bipartisan deal, Mr. Biden said he would refuse to sign the legislation if it weren’t accompanied by another bill, probably passed by Democrats alone.

“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Mr. Biden told reporters. “It’s in tandem.” But he stopped far short of outlining exactly what he expected to be in the second proposal — and discussions of climate change were all but absent from his remarks.

Mr. Biden’s comments drew fire from some of the centrist Republican senators who had agreed to the compromise proposal, and who said they felt blindsided by what they considered an inherent veto threat in the absence of more ambitious, Democrats-only legislation. The White House was left to run damage control.

On Saturday, after more than 24 hours of working the phones to hold on to Republican support, Mr. Biden released a statement acknowledging that his comments had “created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent.” He urged senators not to condition their support for one bill on the fate of another.

“Our bipartisan agreement does not preclude Republicans from attempting to defeat my Families Plan; likewise, they should have no objections to my devoted efforts to pass that Families Plan and other proposals in tandem,” he wrote. “We will let the American people — and the Congress — decide.”

What that is really likely to mean is that Mr. Manchin will again be in a position to make many of the decisions, largely by virtue of his willingness to say no to top Democratic priorities on fossil fuels.