WASHINGTON – Climate activists and their Democratic allies in Congress are pressing with renewed urgency for huge investments to slow global warming, after a bipartisan infrastructure plan cut out some of President Joe Biden’s key climate initiatives.
Supporters say a larger, Democratic-only package now being developed in Congress must meet Biden’s promise to move the country toward carbon-free electricity, make America a global leader in electric vehicles and create millions of jobs in solar, wind and other clean- energy industries.
But passage of a larger, multitrillion-dollar bill faces significant hurdles, even if Democrats use a procedural method that requires only a simple majority. It's far from certain, in an evenly divided Senate, that moderate Democrats will agree to an expansive measure that could swell to as high as $6 trillion.
On the other hand, a less costly bill that does not fully address climate change risks losing support from large numbers of liberal Democrats who have pledged action on an issue that Biden has called “the existential crisis of our times.”
Elimination of climate measures in the bipartisan plan comes as the effects of climate change, like worsening disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and drought, are increasing. Scientists urge immediate action to slash greenhouse emissions to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
“The bipartisan infrastructure deal is not a climate bill," said Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, an advocacy group that has pushed for urgent action on climate change. "And we know that fossil fuel lobbyists in Washington are already hard at work to eliminate key climate provisions from the (Democrat-only) package.
“To meet this moment, Democrats must stand firm and pass a package that makes historic investments in climate, jobs and justice,″ he said.
Even the bipartisan agreement is not certain to pass a closely divided Congress. A framework announced June 24 by Biden and a bipartisan group of senators does not include legislative provisions and many details need to be worked out.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the bipartisan deal inadequate when his state and others in the West face a record heat wave and destructive wildfires. “It will not include comprehensive clean energy policy, and I am not willing to support throwing climate change overboard,” Wyden said. “The two bills have to be directly connected.”
The $973 billion bipartisan deal includes money to build a national network of electric vehicle charging stations, purchase thousands of electric buses and upgrade the electrical grid. It also would spend $55 billion to improve drinking water and wastewater systems and $47 billion in resiliency efforts to tackle climate change.
But many climate-related proposals were cut out, including plans promoted by Biden to make electricity carbon-free by 2035 and spend hundreds of billions in tax incentives for clean energy such as wind and solar power and technologies that capture and store carbon emissions.
In La Crosse, Wisconsin, last week, Biden highlighted projects that would get more money from the bipartisan bill, such as hybrid buses and road repair equipment. And the White House says climate considerations will be a key part of a plan for infrastructure, jobs and education that would be determined solely by Democrats through a “budget reconciliation” process in Congress.
Activists say the bipartisan framework falls short on nearly every important climate commitment Biden laid out in his initial proposal in the spring, including energy upgrades for buildings, a Civilian Climate Corps and massive spending on environmental justice.
The White House, saying it is holding firm on Biden’s ideas, released a memo last week reaffirming its commitment to bolster the electric vehicle market, make buildings and property more resilient to harsh weather patterns and ensure the country’s electrical grid becomes carbon-free by 2035.
Environmental groups say that is not enough.
“This is a historic, narrow opportunity to combat the climate crisis, and we can’t afford to kick the can down the road any further,” said Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for the Sunrise Movement, another environmental group. “When Democrats agree to water it down more, they’re condemning Americans to untold devastation.”
The push on climate comes as some on the left express disappointment at several recent Biden administration actions on the environment. While generally supportive of Biden’s approach, environmentalists are troubled by decisions to go forward with a huge Trump-era oil project on Alaska’s North Slope and to defend two oil pipelines in the upper Midwest, the Dakota Access Pipeline and Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 replacement project.
Environmentalists also are frustrated by the administration’s failure to revive a ban on federal coal sales imposed under President Barack Obama.
While Biden made “good decisions” in rejecting the Keystone XL oil pipeline and drilling on Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his administration’s support for other oil projects and pipelines undermines Biden’s commitment to slow global warming, said Drew Caputo of the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
“We’re not going to successfully fight climate change if we trade pipeline for pipeline’’ and oil project for oil project, he said. “We have to transform the economy. Investing in expensive fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines really puts the administration’s ability to deal with climate change at risk.’’
A letter signed by 134 House Democrats calls on Biden to ensure the infrastructure legislation includes “robust” spending that “matches the scale of the challenge climate science tells us we face."
The letter, led by Reps. Mike Levin of California, Andy Kim of New Jersey and Sharice Davids of Kansas, outlines five climate priorities in the reconciliation package, including a carbon-free grid by 2035, replacement of lead water pipes and service lines, and a commitment that 40% of program benefits are reserved for poor and minority communities harmed by toxic pollution from refineries and other sites.
Levin, who serves on a House climate change panel, said in an interview that he is confident Biden “sees the climate crisis as the existential threat to the future that it is” and “will act as the moment needs.″
Asked about concerns by some activists that Democrats may shy away from spending trillions on climate change, Levin said, “Don’t agonize, organize,″ borrowing a quote often used by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
There’s uncertainty about what Democrats ultimately will approve, Levin acknowledged, “but also continued optimism to do the right thing.″
Levin cited a bill approved by the House last week authorizing $715 billion for roads, rail, public transit and water over five years. The bill, which will probably serve as a marker in infrastructure negotiations, includes money for electric vehicle charging stations and other elements designed to counter climate change. Transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, the bill’s primary author, said the threat of climate change means “we have to rebuild in ways that we never even thought about before. It’s going to be expensive, but the good news is, it’s going to create millions of good-paying jobs.″
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Kevin Freking in Washington and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.