Progressives Should Rally Around a Clean Energy Construction Boom

Source: By David Wallace-Wells, New York Times • Posted: Monday, June 12, 2023

Ibrahim Rayintakath

The alliance that pushed the Inflation Reduction Act into law in August was always a somewhat fragile and ramshackle one: Green New Dealers and the coal-state senator Joe Manchin, carbon-capture geeks and environmental justice warriors, all herded together in the sort of big-tent play you get with a 50-50 Senate and one party functionally indifferent on climate.

One conspicuous cost of the compromise reached was a promise made by Senator Chuck Schumer to Manchin on what was vaguely called permitting reform: a catchall phrase referring to a whole host of efforts to cut red tape and ease the rollout of energy infrastructure. After weeks of speculation and intracoalitional debate, the text of the compromise was released on Sept. 21. By Sept. 27, the coalition had fallen apart, with Manchin somewhat abruptly pulling what had become known as the side deal from a must-pass budget resolution.

This was seemingly a victory for the progressive caucus, activists and environmental justice groups, which opposed the agreement as a fossil fuel handout, and another mark of a growing climate rift on the left in the aftermath of what was widely hailed as the most significant decarbonization bill passed into American law. (Nothing breaks a partnership like success, I guess.) But it also suggests an obvious next step for the left side of the now fractured climate coalition: its own alternative permitting reform bill, focused on building more electric transmission lines and streamlining regulatory approval for clean energy projects (without allowing for more fossil fuel infrastructure or the stampeding of frontline communities).

That’s because there are, I think, pretty strong climate arguments for permitting reform in principle: To more or less replace or rebuild the country’s whole energy infrastructure would require an enormous construction effort, ideally undertaken at warp speed. But Manchin’s particular version? Alongside reforms to promote more rapid build-out of the electricity grid, its major elements included modest changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, the environmental-review law whose impacts on energy infrastructure build-out are debated. Its review process slows projects enough, though, that even modest changes like these would accelerate things somewhat (and make it presumably harder to object to new projects on the basis of conservation values or environmental justice).

Manchin’s version would also have granted the Department of Energy the authority to highlight a small set of projects for expediting, but it also would have required that the list be pretty balanced between fossil fuel and clean energy infrastructure. And it would have made a special and especially odious oversight exception for a pet project of Manchin’s, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia and had run aground in the courts and became a sort of unflattering fossil fuel hood ornament for the reform bill as a whole. Which is to say that, transmission aside, it’s not obvious that these measures, taken all together, are a win for decarbonization and climate.

But you can’t exactly put transmission aside, given that getting to net zero carbon emissions may require a doubling of the current grid. Manchin’s text — which may yet be passed into law, perhaps attached to another piece of must-pass legislation, like the upcoming defense appropriation bill — was imperfect, at best, from an emissions perspective. (A global consensus holds that to hit the world’s more ambitious climate targets requires no new fossil fuel infrastructure being built anywhere in the world, and Manchin’s text would not just allow some projects but also accelerate their approval and construction.) But as always with climate, there is a cost of saying just no, too. The status quo is not a comfortable place to wait for action.

In late September, the REPEAT project at Princeton’s Zero Lab, led by Jesse Jenkins, released an analysis of how important it was to accelerate the growth of electricity transmission, in particular, in pursuit of the country’s climate targets. About a month earlier, the lab produced a much-cited estimate of the emissions impact of the Inflation Reduction Act, finding that the new law could help cut U.S. emissions to 42 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, preserving about 80 percent of the potential reductions contained in the failed Build Back Better Act and pulling the country’s overall goals just about within reach.

In the September follow-up, those significant gains looked much more contingent. More than 80 percent of the potential emissions reductions from the I.R.A. would be lost, the report concluded, if the country continued to expand the electricity grid at only its recent pace of about 1 percent per year.

Even accelerating that pace by half would mean capturing only 75 percent of the potential reductions of the I.R.A. Banking all of the estimated reductions would require more than doubling the recent pace of build-out, to about 2.3 percent per year. And because the I.R.A. is likely to dramatically boost electricity demand, with its incentives for electric vehicles and broader electrification, failing to keep up with that demand by building a bigger, cleaner grid could mean burning more than a hundred million additional tons of coal in 2030 than if the I.R.A. had not passed.

Those projections make the choice seem pretty stark: Manchin’s mixed-bag agreement, a worse Republican alternative or a status quo that could wipe out much of the potential gains of the climate bill. But, of course, Manchin’s deal isn’t the only way to accelerate a green energy build-out, and now that the side deal has been detached from the budget resolution, opening up the timeline beyond the budget deal’s drop-dead date, there are other possibilities to consider, including a bill that pushes more of the good stuff, permitting-wise, without so much, or any, of the bad.

A bill like that doesn’t exist yet. But it should. “Permitting is something that has to be tackled,” acknowledged Representative Ro Khanna, a key broker of the I.R.A. who didn’t want the side deal forced into the budget resolution. “There definitely needs to be some expediting,” he added. That said, he believes the side-deal debate has given rise to “an exaggerated sense” that permitting is “why we’re not building. I think it’s part of it, but I think there’s much more of an issue on work force, capital, government purchase agreements.” An alternative bill could take a broader view of the challenges. But in this round, he said, “we were caught a little flat-footed. And the environmental community has not done the work to coalesce around an alternative. So it became easier for them to coalesce around ‘no.’”

There is at least one alternative bill floating around, the Environmental Justice for All Act, sponsored by Representative Raúl Grijalva, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which voted the bill out of committee in July. But though it includes reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act, it is focused not on the need to accelerate the construction of clean energy infrastructure but on measures to hold polluting industries accountable.

Whether a new clean energy infrastructure bill would be viable in this Congress is not at all clear, given that Manchin remains the pivotal Senate vote and that — even beyond his commitments to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and a technology-neutral approach to energy policy generally — he is not the most reliable friend of progressives or environmentalists.

But its value could still be quite significant, in two ways. First, it would undermine the growing perception, however inaccurate, that the climate left values conservation above clean energy. And second, it would open a conversation about how to speed the energy transition beyond the velocity favored by Manchin and at least raise the possibility of an even more effective implementation strategy — one that didn’t merely cement the presumptive gains of the I.R.A. but also, potentially, extended them by greasing the wheels of new clean infrastructure and tipping the scales even further in the direction of green energy.