On anniversary of climate bill deal, Democrats want more

Source: By Emma Dumain, E&E News • Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2023

Senate Democrats and advocates.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) with other Democrats and climate activists during a press conference Wednesday on the Inflation Reduction Act’s anniversary. Francis Chung/POLITICO

A year after striking a deal on the Inflation Reduction Act, climate hawks know they have a lot of unfinished business.

Just for starters: a green jobs training program, an initiative to incentivize a clean energy transition for utilities and a tax credit for transmission. All that and more was left on the cutting room floor when the IRA passed.

Many lawmakers and advocates say these priorities must all be taken up when Democrats once again control Congress and the White House in order to thwart the worst effects of global warming.

“It’s an existential threat, and the IRA was a modest step forward,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “If we’re going to save the planet, we are going to have to work in cooperation with the rest of the world in a dramatic reduction of fossil fuels.”

Most Democrats would prefer to talk about all the good things flowing out of the IRA — the single largest investment in battling climate change in the nation’s history — not the ones that got away. And there is much for them to celebrate.

Billions of dollars are pouring into clean energy initiatives, methane emissions are set to be curbed, and thousands of jobs are being created. Democrats plan to do a big sell of the bill in the 2024 elections.

“I think if the public understands how critical our response to global warming is, and how critical it is to do it now, and do it robustly, there I think the American public will appreciate what we’ve done,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is leading a group devoted to informing voters about the IRA’s benefits.

Yet in more than a dozen one-on-one interviews with lawmakers and advocates, many said it was imperative that a political victory lap does not undermine the urgency of further action.

House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the Democratic base will insist on it.

“It behooves us in the majority — if we’re there in two years — to understand the public sentiment” to do more on climate, said Grijalva, whose effort to insert environmental justice initiatives into the bill fell by the wayside, “and not to sit around planning but to take action.”

He added, “I think there’s going to be public momentum for that. And, if we are fortunate enough to have the majority, it will also be a mandate.”

‘Even bigger and better’

Lawmakers have lots on their wish lists for the next time around.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) bemoaned the transmission tax credit getting cut and expressed hope it could be revived in a bipartisan deal to do more on overhauling the permitting process for a wider array of energy projects.

Doing more to accelerate permitting for renewables — necessary for unleashing many of the IRA’s clean energy investments faster — was a recurring theme among congressional Democrats in interviews over the past few weeks.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said he wanted to try again to secure robust funding for the Civilian Climate Corps, which Biden championed during his 2020 White House bid.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said there needs to be renewed attention to boosting funding for geothermal energy. “There have been some pretty interesting technological developments,” he noted.

And Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is urging colleagues to continue fighting for a price on carbon, “which of course the oil and gas industry will continue to fight with every fiber of their being.”

Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said there was no way the IRA would meet the emissions reduction goals necessary to stop the worst effects of the climate crisis from coming to pass. More work would absolutely be needed.

“Some of the programs were not funded at very high levels,” said Stokes, who was instrumental in designing the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a $150 billion initiative to incentivize a clean energy transition by utilities that also fell out during IRA negotiations.

“You look at, for example, the rebate programs for electrification and efficiency to help Americans save money on their energy bills and get clean machines like heat pumps,” she continued. “Those dollars aren’t out the door yet, but there’s only about $9 billion and that money is going to go really fast.”

Stokes also said the IRA might not have ultimately had enough “sticks” — or punitive mechanisms to force utilities to lower their emissions — to really force a change in behavior.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who championed the CEPP on Capitol Hill, said she “continue[d] to think that that significant proposal … would be very valuable towards achieving our emissions goals and speeding along the transition to clean power and also doing in a way that keeps energy costs low for consumers.”

She noted the program had “a lot of Democratic support — we didn’t have enough, but we had a lot,” and that it remained “something that the administration has supported.”

The CEPP was seen as a centerpiece to meeting Biden’s emissions goals. It was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who ultimately dealt the CEPP the final blow.

The West Virginian didn’t attend a press event Wednesday celebrating the first anniversary of his accord with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

In the last several months, Manchin has been feuding with the administration over its implementation of the electric vehicle tax credits. At times he has threatened to back GOP repeal efforts.

But Schumer, standing outside the Capitol in the blazing heat flanked by jubilant colleagues and allies, promised the IRA wasn’t the end of the road for climate action.

“If we get a seat or two more in the Senate, which I think we will, take back the House, keep the presidency — even though we passed the IRA, you ain’t going to see nothing yet,” he crowed. “We’re going to do even bigger and better.”

‘Absolutely shocked’

Even Schumer wouldn’t get into specifics. Asked at a press conference about future climate action in the post-IRA era, he told reporters it was difficult to contend with a Republican House that was “so anti-environmental … but we’re going to look at every aspect where we can succeed to get things done environmentally in the Senate.”

Democrats’ fierce defense of the IRA — such that it almost supersedes acknowledgement of the unfinished business on climate action — can be viewed in the context of how the bill came to become law.

Indeed, it almost didn’t become law at all.

Over the course of a year and a half, the overall cost for the social spending package went from $6 trillion, down to $3.5 trillion and then to $1.7 trillion with $555 billion earmarked for climate programs.

The final bill funded clean energy investments at $369 billion, a historic sum.

Along the way, Democrats fought to preserve their priorities, like the fee on methane emissions and funding for programs under the Interior Department purview that had originally been excluded.

Yet as the price tag diminished, climate hawks were forced to adjust their expectations. For instance, a $20 billion Civilian Climate Corps — a green jobs training and placement program touted by progressives — would ultimately fall out of the bill.

Initiatives deemed central to the mission of the entire bill were dropped along the way, as well, including the Clean Electricity Performance Program.

The tax credit for expanded transmission deployment — now the center of a larger conversation about how to speed up the permitting process for renewables — also didn’t survive negotiations.

Such sacrifices were made to either accommodate a new top line or as a concession to Manchin, who was a deciding vote in the entire endeavor.

In mid-July, Manchin announced he was walking away from the negotiating table once and for all on talks to advance a Senate version of the House’s “Build Back Better Act.”

But two weeks later, on July 27, new legislation dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act” was revealed, the product of secret negotiations between Manchin, Schumer and top aides.

In that light, it’s easy for most climate advocates to forgive all that the bill ultimately did not achieve and to be fiercely protective of the law rather than preoccupied with plotting their next climate victory.

“I was absolutely shocked at how much we got in,” Heinrich said. “I thought a lot would fall out … if you just look at where we expect to get reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we got about 90 percent of what we wanted into the bill. That means we got most of the stuff we were trying to accomplish.”

Democrats and advocates now insist the top priority must be ensuring smooth implementation of the IRA and girding against efforts by Republicans to scale back the law’s tax credits, not plotting the details of the next big climate package.

“These programs that were created that were key parts of the Inflation Reduction Act, they need to be supported through appropriations, they need to avoid being watered down by harmful riders from Congress,” said Elizabeth Gore, the senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The farm bill also needs to protect those conservation dollars that were included in the IRA,” said Gore.

Agreeing with that point was Matthew Davis, vice president of federal policy at the League of Conservation Voters.

“We’re living in this moment of tension between a very important victory and also the importance of implementation and getting it right,” he said, “and knowing that this is just a start of a race and not at all the end.”

Reporter Nico Portuondo contributed.