Clean energy loses big in year-end spending bill

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Fog surrounds the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Lawmakers had one last chance this year to pass legislation that could have spurred the United States to adopt cleaner sources of energy more quickly. But they seems to have just squandered the opportunity.

The $1.4 trillion spending package approved by the House on Tuesday does not include a number of measures aimed at propping up alternatives to power generation and transportation that forgo burning fossil fuels, a primary contribution to the runaway warming climate scientists say the world has precious little time to avert.

The must-pass spending bill was seen as one of the only remaining ways before the 2020 presidential election to move forward with legislation that tackles climate change.

A majority of House Democrats supported creating or extending tax breaks — lawmakers’ favorite tool for supporting renewable energy — for solar energy, offshore wind turbines, electric vehicles and big batteries.

But almost none of those tax credits made it into the final deal.

Democrats say the week began with a tentative agreement between both parties that contained several of those clean energy provisions. But the White House objected to their inclusion, Democrats said, so they were pulled from the final deal to avoid a government shutdown before the holidays.

“We’re missing a huge opportunity,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chair of the House and Commerce subcommittee on climate change and the environment. “To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.” Tonko had led more than 160 House Democrats urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in an open letter in October to “prioritize” including the clean energy tax credits in the final spending deal with Republicans.

In particular, the oil and natural gas industry, a major ally of President Trump, vigorously lobbied against an expansion of a tax break for buyers of cars that need little to no gasoline to run.

Democrats say the Trump administration decided to side with the oil sector over General Motors and other automakers, which had mounted their own campaign in Congress this year to save the dwindling tax credit for electric vehicles.

The White House, said Rep. Dan Kildee, “made it very clear that everything but electric vehicles is on the table.” The Michigan Democrat added that Trump “fell flat” in protecting Midwestern auto manufactures by refusing to subsidize the sale of low- to no-emissions cars. Elsewhere, the spending bill was filled to the brim with tax relief for everything from beer breweries and whiskey distilleries to churches with parking lots.

The package did fulfill one major Democratic demand: Sustaining funding at energy and environmental agencies. The spending bill boosts funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by $208 million and increases funding for basic scientific research at the Energy Department by $415 million, despite efforts by the White House to slash spending within the two departments.

And the final package does have a handful of provisions supporting alternative energy. Tax credits for biodiesel fuel, energy-efficiency projects and some wind turbines were extended. The bill also revived several expired tax breaks for geothermal, electric scooters and some other technologies.

Yet some of the tax breaks are retroactive, which means they do little to nothing to incentivize more investment in clean energy now.

Greg Wetstone, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, in particular lamented the loss of tax breaks for energy storage projects.

The cost of wind and solar power have dropped a lot, but those sources of power often generate electricity when consumers don’t need it. Big batteries and other ways of storing energy helped solve the problem, but those technologies are still expensive.

“It’s an ideal, prototypical situation for a tax incentive,” Wetstone said.

Beyond energy and environmental policy, Democrats point to a grab bag of victories on issues in the legislation that motivate their voting base. It would provide funding for gun research and stabilize pensions for tens of thousands of miners after a string of bankruptcies among coal-mining firms.

The tax bill comes off the heels of a deal last week between Democrats and Trump on a new North American trade pact — a major priority for the president — that also contained little that reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

With many environmentalists livid over a lack of wins for them as the year closes, the fallout from the failure to give tax relief for renewable energy producers could extend to the ballot box in 2020.

Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, a usually staunch environmental ally for Democrats based in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) hometown of San Francisco, even threatened on Twitter to challenge sitting House Democrats in primaries.