How Joe Biden won on the climate plan

WASHINGTON — Over the past year, President Joe Biden has seen elements of his national agenda thrown overboard in an effort to keep him afloat. Free community college, child care funding, expanded preschool – all left behind.

But there was at least one critical element that came out largely intact, but not unscathed. Legislation approved by the Senate over the weekend includes nearly $400 billion for clean energy initiatives, the largest investment the country has ever made in the fight against global warming.

The measure, which includes other provisions on taxes and prescription drugs, is expected to pass the House on Friday before heading to Biden’s office for his signature. In a statement to The Associated Press, Biden said the legislation will help him deliver on his campaign promise to “build a clean energy future and create jobs for the working Americans who are building that future.”

“Our children and grandchildren will remember this for many years to come: This bill changes their lives and secures their future more than almost anything Washington has done in decades,” he said.

For the White House, the end result is evidence of an approach — more focused on incentives than regulations or penalties — that grew out of the failure to advance climate policy more than a decade ago, when Biden was vice president.

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Democrats began pushing through legislation that would create a cap and trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposal would have limited emissions and required industries to buy permits to reject emissions, creating a financial incentive to operate cleaner.

But with the economy still struggling to recover from the recession and Republicans in opposition, legislation stalled in 2010. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who was running for the Senate at the time, published a campaign ad in which he shot a shotgun at a copy of the bill.

Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress, was working on Capitol Hill at the time. She said the failure was “absolutely devastating for the climate community and really led to some deep thinking and soul-searching”.

Another setback came in 2018, when Washington state voters rejected a carbon tax. If the idea couldn’t even catch on in such a liberal corner of the country, Goldfuss said, what chance did it have nationally?

Domestic policy adviser Stef Feldman said Biden’s experience as vice president informed his thinking on climate policy when he began running for the White House in 2019.

“He had seen President Obama work very hard to get a cap and trade system over the finish line,” she said. “He knew we had to try something different.”

Ali Zaidi, the deputy national climate adviser, said Biden has been helped by the fact that clean energy has become more affordable and recognizable in recent years.

“This is a set of technologies and a set of solutions for which the time has come,” he said. “He was able to speak to an American people who knew concretely what it meant, and the economy aligned to propel the action.”

White House officials said they have made a sustained effort to build — and hold together — a coalition involving labor, environmentalists and industry. For example, Zaidi and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy traveled to Colorado last September for the Edison Electric Institute board meeting, which represents utilities. Other meetings have involved autoworkers, miners and clean energy companies.

Climate policy was incorporated into Biden’s larger national agenda, which included expanded educational and safety net programs. Biden quickly faced a hurdle when a central part of his plan to move utilities away from fossil fuels, known as the clean electricity standard, was left on the drawing board. Then it all came to a halt when negotiations between the White House and Manchin stalled in December.

Manchin started speaking with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, again this year, starting with dinner at an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill. White House officials have also focused their attention on him. Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, visited West Virginia with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in March.

However, negotiations began to break down again last month.

“People were holding their breath,” Zaidi said.

Behind the scenes, White House adviser Steve Ricchetti continued to speak with Manchin, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Other Democratic senators also exerted quiet pressure on Manchin to bring him back to the table.

As Biden considered declaring a climate emergency, Manchin and Schumer resumed negotiations. They announced a deal on July 27.

Schumer acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that “the climate was difficult” to understand in the negotiations. Manchin is a longtime supporter of coal and oil and Schumer said, “I knew he would add some tough stuff.”

Manchin was successful in securing more government bids for oil drilling on federal lands and waters. He also secured a commitment to help with a gas pipeline in his state.

Schumer said he had a “north star” in the negotiations, which meant substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“As long as we reduce the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere by 40% – Biden’s bill was 45 – we could be swallowing bad stuff,” he explained.

Schumer said, “And I’ve talked to some of my caucus members and they’re like, ‘Go ahead, we’ll back you up if you have to swallow bad stuff to get a good bill.'”

The final package of climate proposals was cut from the original $555 billion plan, but it’s still packed with financial incentives for clean energy.

The manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines would allow companies to benefit from tax credits. More money would help Americans buy electric vehicles or make their homes energy efficient.

“The bill gives people the tools to be part of the climate solution and make sense for their wallets,” Feldman said.

There are still a few sticks left to accompany the carrots.

A crucial part of the bill would charge oil and gas companies a fee for excessive methane emissions at drilling sites. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a key contributor to global warming and has a stronger short-term climate impact than even carbon dioxide.

The methane tax was the top priority of Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, a close Biden ally.

“If we want to make real progress on climate change in a short time, a good place to start is methane,” Carper said in an interview.

But a sign of Manchin’s crucial role, the final version of the bill includes a grant program that rewards energy companies that take steps to reduce methane emissions at drilling sites.

Carper called the provision a compromise, noting that he and his staff worked with Manchin to address a series of “concerns raised by Joe on behalf of the oil and gas industry.”

Regardless of the compromises, environmentalists were pleased with the outcome after bracing for another setback.

“This is a defining victory for this administration and a milestone achievement for the entire climate community that contributed to it,” said Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “After years of inaction in Congress, we are now making remarkable and historic progress.”

Story by Chris Megerian. Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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