Climate crisis hawks have questions about energy policies in Democrats' new bill

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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 17: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) stops to chat with reporters outside the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) chats with reporters outside the Senate chamber of the Capitol earlier this year. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Climate crisis hawks are raising significant questions about Democrats’ emerging legislative deal to address healthcare, energy and taxes, a potential roadblock to swift passage of a key portion of President Biden’s agenda.

If approved, the bill — an agreement cut in secret between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) with the White House’s blessing — would include $369 billion for climate provisions and reduce emissions by roughly 40% by 2030, according to the bill’s authors.

It would amount to the most consequential climate change bill ever approved by Congress, although that’s largely because Congress has never passed a substantial climate bill.

Proponents say the deal would begin to reshape the nation’s reliance on emissions-producing fuels and catapult the United States into a worldwide leader in reducing emissions.

The plan includes billions of dollars in tax incentives for renewable energy and home energy rebates, credits for clean cars ($4,000 for used cars and up to $7,500 for new cars) and incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles.

In addition to addressing climate change, the legislation would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and set a corporate minimum tax rate — Democratic priorities that the party is eager to run on in the fall midterm election.

But climate hawks are concerned that the plan ties renewable energy development — which they say is pivotal to redirecting the world away from fuels that produce emissions — to mandatory new fossil fuel leasing off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Manchin and Schumer also agreed to advance unspecified reforms for lease permitting in a separate bill, which has raised questions among progressives.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) called the renewables-for-leases arrangement a “really gross … hostage situation.”

“If we mean what we say about this climate crisis, you don’t go and offer up 60 million acres of new offshore fossil development plus new drilling in the Arctic. So there’s some tough conversations that need to happen,” he said. “I need to understand exactly how that is likely to play out before I decide what I am going to do.”

Huffman and others concerned about climate change say they want the White House — which controls the leasing — to more fully explain the plan, released Wednesday evening.

White House officials were working the phones Thursday to lobby climate advocates in the House, including Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.).

“What I’m trying to understand is: Is the White House fighting for the president’s agenda, or is the White House fighting for that which can pass the Senate, which is a different thing,” Casten said. “To the extent that this text is the latter, then we have to have a conversation with the White House about, ‘OK, if we’re going to vote for this in the House, what degrees of freedom do you have, and are you willing to use them?’”

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is concerned that the “comprehensive permitting reform” is going to open the door to excessive permitting. He questioned whether it is “just another euphemism for gutting our most foundational environmental and public health protections, like the National Environmental Policy Act.”

Climate advocates have long been skeptical of Manchin’s commitment to combating climate change, questioning whether his home state’s coal interests would prevent him from supporting anything that would spur development in renewable energies, such as wind and solar.

But with Manchin as the most conservative Democrat in the closely divided 50-50 chamber, his vote is necessary for any deal. Democrats plan to pass the legislation under a special procedure that circumvents a Republican filibuster.

Without Manchin’s support, the bill would die. It is uncertain how serious the progressives’ concerns are — and whether the White House can mollify them.

Manchin’s powerful role in the Senate will force House Democrats to consider whether they want to swallow the policy he has insisted on or kill the effort. Many Democrats in recent months have begrudgingly accepted his position.

“If you have to pass through Manchin, there’s going to be a give,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said.

She is more forgiving of the leasing provision, even though she called it a “negative” in the bill.

“What we are seeing is the emissions that result from that [leasing] right now, preliminarily, seem to pale in comparison to the gains that we will get in some of these provisions, such as [electric vehicles],” she said. “I do think this disproportionally favors climate progress and drawdown.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) praised the climate provisions as a “very significant, very laudable first step.” But he wants to see independent verification of the analysis by the bill’s drafters that it would reduce emissions by 40%.

“They are a great opening effort,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.