Biden Power Plant and EV Plans Hit a New Obstacle: Vulnerable Democrats

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(Bloomberg) -- Vulnerable Democrats in swing states are increasingly sounding the alarm about Biden environmental policies that risk turning off cost-conscious moderate voters they need to win at the ballot box.

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The warnings pose an election year challenge for US President Joe Biden, whose plans to slash power plant pollution, boost electric vehicle sales and pause natural gas exports are popular with climate activists — but politically poisonous for some congressional Democrats.

The latest sign of pushback comes as a dozen Democrats — including Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana — plead with the Biden administration to dial back a planned regulation limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants.

They argue the measure set to be finalized this spring relies too heavily on nascent carbon-capture, hydrogen and advanced nuclear technologies to arrest emissions — and consumers will be forced to foot the bill. “It is unreasonable to expect our constituents to shoulder the financial burden and risk associated with these advancements, particularly in the form of significantly higher utility bills and unreliable electricity,” seven House Democrats said in a previously unreported letter to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Similar missives have been aimed at a Biden administration proposal that would effectively compel two-thirds of all cars and light trucks sold in 2032 to be electric models. Some moderate Democrats also have sought to distance themselves from administration measures on energy efficiency and ESG investing.

And Biden’s latest move — to freeze issuing new licenses to widely export US liquefied natural gas — could cause more complications for Democrats facing voters in energy-rich, red-leaning states, especially those that supported former President Donald Trump in 2020.

Read More: Biden Freezes Licenses to Export Gas, Imperiling Projects

For now, the response from Democrats with seats on the line has been to deliver targeted criticisms at specific Biden administration environmental regulations. Strategists say it allows the lawmakers to differentiate themselves from other Democrats and show they’re sensitive to voters’ economic worries.

You “need to find something to demonstrate you are a different kind of Democrat,” said pollster Zac McCrary, a partner with Impact Research.

“There’s this imperative to show voters what you’re doing to arrest costs, to drive down costs and make it cheaper to raise a family,” he added. “Anything that’s going to actually raise costs or be perceived to raise costs is going to be a difficult lift.”

Democrats now taking aim at some Biden environmental policies nonetheless backed the president’s Inflation Reduction Act two years ago. The law uses tax incentives and grants to entice environmental improvement instead of mandating it — a sharp contrast to the proposed regulations drawing fire now.

The conflict is notable because Biden is highlighting his climate record while seeking reelection. While other issues — including defending democracy, abortion rights and the economy — have had greater prominence on the campaign trail, the sweeping climate law Biden enacted in 2022 is one of his signature legislative accomplishments.

For mainstream Democrats, the president’s climate record is an asset. Not only do the administration’s policies seek to arrest a global threat, the new incentives for renewable power, electric vehicles and clean energy technology are spurring domestic manufacturing investments nationwide. Supporters say the payoff is high-paying jobs and green power that isn’t tethered to volatile commodities and prone to supply shocks.

“The president’s climate policies are reducing utility bills and creating jobs,” said Lauren Hitt, a Biden campaign spokesperson. “The Inflation Reduction Act has created more than 170,000 jobs to date, and it’s projected to create more than 1.5 million additional jobs moving forward. And working together, the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will reduce electricity and gas prices by approximately 10%.”

Climate action also entices some voters to the polls — with research showing young and older voters engaged on the issue.

“Voters are far more likely to support candidates who campaign on climate action and clean energy jobs,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters. “People are being touched by the climate crisis, by the deadly and devastating impacts of extreme heat, of fires, of storms and floods – and they know that we need to act.”

Yet the economy is a persistent worry for voters, crowding out climate and other issues as Americans’ top concerns heading toward the November elections. And while polls show Americans are increasingly alarmed about climate change, many remain reluctant to underwrite the fight against it.

Roughly a third of likely voters in battleground states surveyed last month —- including 17% of Democrats — said they were unwilling to pay anything personally to address global warming.

“These policies are leprous with respect to everybody,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican energy strategist and former White House adviser. Backers of some Biden administration climate policies, especially on EVs, “think it’s a winner politically because they’ve never actually put it to a vote. When people start voting on it, they’ll see what a loser it is.”

There’s precedent for electoral pushback against policies perceived to hike energy costs. The Clinton administration’s brief 1993 campaign for a “BTU tax” on the heat content of fuel — and the grudging support from some congressional Democrats — was blamed for helping drive the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives a year later. And in 2010, dozens of Democrats were ushered out of office after backing a controversial cap-and-trade plan for stifling carbon dioxide emissions the year before.

Those experiences still reverberate in Washington, even though it’s now federal agencies — not Congress — clamping down on emissions.

Brown, who represents Ohio in the Senate, has criticized EPA’s proposal to force coal-fired power plants and the largest US natural gas plants to stifle most of their greenhouse gas emissions or shut down. In a Jan. 12 newsletter, Brown said the plan “risks reliable electricity and Ohio energy jobs” and “could mean more outages” as well as “higher electric bills.”

Brown was also one of five senators who signed the Dec. 21 letter to the EPA pressing for changes. Three of them — including Brown as well as Tester and former Democrat-turned-independent Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — are in seats labeled “toss ups” by the Cook Political Report.

The similar House letter — sent by seven Democrats a day later — drew support from two in similarly contentious races: Donald Davis of North Carolina and Jared Golden of Maine.

Other vulnerable Democrats have raised misgivings about the EPA plan to impose stringent auto pollution limits designed to encourage EV sales.

Though the proposal would not ban the sale of conventional vehicles, it still may veer uncomfortably close to that approach for some voters. Almost three-quarters of likely voters in Montana — and about two-thirds of those recently surveyed in Arizona, Ohio and Wisconsin — said they opposed “government regulations that would prohibit the sale of new gas, diesel or hybrid vehicles, effectively requiring that all new cars be electric.” The survey was conducted for the American Fuel and Petrochemicals Manufacturers, a refining trade group that opposes the EPA measure.

Representatives Mary Peltola of Alaska and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington last year warned the proposal could wreak “disaster in rural America” and reduce consumer choice if the administration doesn’t move much more aggressively to expand EV charging infrastructure. Both lawmakers represent rural regions that have lagged cities in deploying EV chargers. They’re both also in competitive reelection contests.

(Updates with poll result in penultimate paragraph.)

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