Collapse of Infrastructure Talks Puts Climate Action at Risk

Source: By Coral Davenport, Lisa Friedman and Emily Cochrane, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2021

The chances of pushing climate legislation through Congress, a long shot from the beginning, now appear even more uncertain.

Demonstrators outside the White House last week called on President Biden to include climate provisions in the infrastructure bill he was negotiating with Congress.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The collapse of negotiations between President Biden and Senate Republicans for an infrastructure bill has complicated the prospects for another priority of the administration: fighting climate change.

Embedded in the president’s infrastructure proposal were billions of dollars to help pivot the country away from the fossil fuels that are generating the pollution that is heating the planet.

Mr. Biden and his Democratic allies want a national network of charging stations for electric vehicles, tax incentives to propel solar, wind and other clean energy, money to retrofit homes to cut energy use, and transmission lines for renewable energy, among other things.

But their highest priority is a clean electricity standard, which would require power companies to increase the amount of clean electricity they generate over time until they eventually stop burning fossil fuels.

The chances of pushing climate legislation through Congress, a tall order from the beginning, now appear even more uncertain.

That is starting to worry Democrats. “The planet cannot survive another successful Republican obstructionist strategy,” said Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who wrote climate legislation that died in Congress in 2010. “We have to have climate at the center of any infrastructure package in order to have my vote. No climate, no deal.”

The United States must take significant action now, just months before nations gather at a climate summit in Scotland, where the Biden administration wants to sway other countries to take similar steps, said Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat.

“If President Biden wants to establish credibility before he goes to Glasgow later this year, we need to do this and we need to do it big and meaningful,” Mr. Heinrich said.

Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico discussed a resolution for electricity infrastructure in May.
Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

On Wednesday, White House officials said they had not wavered in their commitment to making climate a core part of any infrastructure package. The administration has encouraged a bipartisan group of senators to continue to try to hammer out an agreement.

“The president has underscored that climate change is one of the defining crises we face as a nation, and in the negotiations he has continuously fought for leading on the clean energy economy and on clean energy jobs — which is critical for our economic growth, competitiveness, and middle class,” said Andrew J. Bates, a White House spokesman, in a statement.

Several Democratic senators as well as many climate activists say they nonetheless fear that the prospects for climate legislation could evaporate, as they did in the first term of the Obama administration.

After former President Barack Obama vowed to tackle global warming, the White House repeatedly delayed its push for legislation, focusing first on passing health care and Wall Street overhauls.

By the time Senate Democrats took up a major climate bill, well into Mr. Obama’s first term, momentum had waned and the measure failed to muster enough support to merit a vote on the Senate floor. Six months later, Republicans swept into the House majority in the midterm elections and prospects for climate legislation died for the next decade.

“I’ve seen this movie before,” said Mr. Heinrich, a veteran of the failed 2009 effort.

The impact of climate change is already being felt around the world in the form of drought, wildfire, floods, economic disruption and environmentalists say action cannot be postponed.

“We are all nervous,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, referring to the environmental community. “We are truly out of time at this point.”

A recent report from the International Energy Agency concluded that if the world is to stave off the most devastating consequences of global warming, major economies must end new oil investments by 2035.

Public concern about climate change has been rising, according to recent surveys. A March poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found 52 percent of registered voters say global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and the Congress. Support for a clean electricity standard is higher, with 61 percent of registered voters saying utilities should be required to produce all of their electricity from renewable energy sources by the year 2035.

Carol Browner, who served as Mr. Obama’s senior climate change adviser, said that while memories of the 2009 failures linger, the politics have shifted significantly.

“Having gone through the climate wars of the early Obama years, this moment feels very different to me,” she said. “There is more cohesion, more ardor among Democrats 16, 17 years later. That, to me, is very encouraging.”

Mr. Biden has pledged to cut greenhouse pollution generated by the United States by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. It is unlikely he can reach that target without passage this summer of climate legislation that includes a clean electricity standard.

Even before Mr. Biden ended negotiations on Tuesday with Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, progressive Democrats had warned that Republicans were unlikely to embrace the scale of spending needed to address climate change.

Mr. Biden has now shifted his engagement to a bipartisan group of senators working on their own framework. While that group has not yet disclosed details, one of those senators, Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said in an interview Wednesday that she was open to including some climate provisions.

“I think when you’re talking about infrastructure, it’s really easy — it’s important, actually — to talk about some of the things that allow for reduced emissions,” said Ms. Murkowski, who has helped to write climate legislation in the past. “When you’ve got upgraded pipeline, that’s a good thing. When you have efficiency with the new transportation system, that’s a good thing. Charging stations, E.V., is good.”

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said separately that the proposal had “a number of line items that relate to climate change” but acknowledged it would be more limited than what many Democrats are seeking.

But even if the group can agree on a plan that is palatable to Mr. Biden, it faces several obstacles, including questions about how it would be funded and whether it could attract the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

That is why Mr. Biden has also spoken to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, about starting work on a budget blueprint that could allow Democrats to use a fast-track budget process and advance infrastructure legislation with a simple majority vote.

But that strategy could force Democrats to either modify or jettison key elements to ensure passage. And in order to pass that budget bill, leaders can afford little dissent — particularly in the Senate, where all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats must remain united — which could lead to further changes in order to accommodate varying priorities.

It’s also not clear whether Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who has defended his home state’s coal industry, would support including climate provisions in a budget bill. He has been reluctant to push through legislation without any Republican support.

Some Democrats suggested that persuading Mr. Manchin to vote for a clean electricity standard may be easier than winning over Republicans, who stood firm over the past several weeks during negotiations with Mr. Biden as they rejected things like huge investments to modernize transmission lines and retrofit buildings to make them energy efficient.

Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota who has been working to build support among members of both parties for a clean electricity standard said she was confident the Biden administration would not allow climate change to get knocked out of the infrastructure package.

“This is challenging,” Ms. Smith said, adding that said she was willing to see what emerges from the new round of bipartisan discussions. “It was always going to take hard work.”