Energy & Environment

Democrats scramble for climate alternatives

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)speaks with reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
Julia Nikhinson

Democrats are promoting alternate climate provisions given the growing possibility a clean electricity program will be axed from their spending package over objections by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). 

Some are highlighting measures such as clean energy tax credits or fees on carbon dioxide and methane emissions as promising ways to achieve emissions reductions. 

In statements in recent days, many Democrats appeared to be open to a package without the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) — which aimed to cut 80 percent of the country’s electric-sector emissions by the end of the decade. 

But they also stressed the need for strong climate action in lieu of that specific program.

“If the CEPP has fallen out of the package, that makes the methane and carbon pollution fees even more critical as a pathway to safety,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told The Hill in a statement Monday. 

Whitehouse has been a proponent of putting fees on carbon emissions. He introduced a bill in June that aimed to charge polluters for emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

The House package also aims to charge oil and gas producers for leaks and excess pollution of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) touted the reconciliation bill’s clean electricity tax credits in a statement Saturday. 

“While I strongly support the Clean Energy Payment Program, it’s important to note that the overwhelming majority of emissions reductions come from the energy tax overhaul in our Clean Energy for America Act,” he said.

“These are permanent policy changes that will provide the certainty needed to address the climate crisis — no more crafting climate policy a year or two at a time,” Wyden added. 

He also discussed the idea of putting a price on carbon emissions on Monday. 

“I’m working very closely with my colleagues on a carbon pricing issue,” he told reporters, adding that moderate senators are interested in working on carbon pricing, particularly considering recent climate-related events. 

For its part, the Biden administration on Monday said that there were a “range of good ideas and proposals out there” that can help achieve President Biden’s climate goals, including using completely carbon-free electricity by 2035. 

“There is no question in our minds — there is important debating right now happening about what the components of the climate proposals will be in these packages — that these packages will have a historic impact in addressing our climate crisis,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. 

The potential pivot comes after reports indicated that the CEPP would likely be cut amid Manchin’s opposition. 

Under the CEPP, power providers would be pushed to shift toward clean energy sources for the electricity they sell through a mix of grants and fines.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) office said in August that the CEPP and clean electricity tax credits could be responsible for more than 40 percent of the emissions cuts from both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Democrats’ spending package.

Manchin, who hails from a coal and natural gas producing state and holds stock in a coal brokerage firm, argues that since the market is already moving toward clean energy, it doesn’t make sense to subsidize the shift. 

“The transition is happening. Now they’re wanting to pay companies to do what they’re already doing. It makes no sense to me at all for us to take billions of dollars and pay utilities for what they’re going to do as the market transitions,” he said last month. 

On the advocacy side of the debate, the Sierra Club appeared open to compromise on the CEPP provided other provisions remain intact.

“If the CEPP were to be abandoned, President Biden and Congressional Democrats must deliver bold new investments in other climate priorities to close the emissions gap and meet the President’s international climate goals in the coming days and weeks as the U.N. climate negotiations near,” the environmental advocacy group said in a statement.

Global leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, in two weeks, and Biden is under pressure to show concrete action from the U.S. in a push for other countries to act on climate change. 

The Sierra Club statement identified potential areas for investment, such as new funds for community and rooftop solar energy as well as tax credits and state grants to incentivize transitioning to renewables.

But other congressional Democrats appear to be pushing back on some of the ideas. Sen. Tina Smith (Minn.), a major CEPP proponent, argues that tax credits on their own are not enough. 

“Clean energy tax credits are great, but they can’t do the heavy lifting all by themselves,” she tweeted Sunday. 

On Friday night, Smith said she wouldn’t support a bill without strong climate action, writing, “I’m open to different approaches, but I cannot support a bill that won’t get us where we need to be on emissions.”

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) said in an interview with The Hill on Monday that the difference between a bill with or without the CEPP was between “the most impactful climate policy that Congress has ever passed” and “basically deciding to kick the can down the road.”

And Casten argued that opponents of the CEPP are also likely to oppose any other policies that would have equally meaningful emissions reductions. 

“The idea that we might have some other policy approach that would be just as effective on climate but would appease their fears — the only way that’s true is if you assume that the opponents of this are too dumb to realize what you’re doing,” he said. “I don’t think they’re dumb.”

Tags Chuck Schumer climate Democrats Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Ron Wyden Sean Casten Sheldon Whitehouse spending package Tina Smith

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