Climate advocates skeptical of bipartisan infrastructure bill amid Biden victory lap

Climate advocates skeptical of bipartisan infrastructure bill amid Biden victory lap
© Evan Vucci/AP

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is getting a lukewarm reception from climate advocates, some of whom say passage of the measure has cost Democrats some leverage when it comes to further advancing a social spending package expected to deliver major climate benefits.

Despite the Biden administration’s victory lap following the House vote on Friday to pass the infrastructure bill after weeks of wrangling, advocates said they plan to put pressure on lawmakers to pass the $1.75 trillion social spending package quickly.

“To tout this bill as a climate victory is ... just a lie,” said John Paul Mejia, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, referring to the bipartisan bill. “Not only does this bill include in it some harmful provisions, it also doesn’t meet the full scope and scale of the climate crisis as much as the reconciliation bill would.” 

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Mejia said he believes that progressive Democrats are now in a worse spot leverage-wise than they were before when they vowed during negotiations to not support the infrastructure bill, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF), without voting on the spending package first. 

“Voting on the BIF first has put us in a more vulnerable position to have our biggest priorities skewed and gutted by corporate Democrats and the cronies of the fossil fuel industry,” he said. 

Despite the criticism from green groups, the bipartisan legislation does have key climate provisions that include efforts to clean up transportation such as building out an electric vehicle charging network, investments in public transportation, and funds for electric buses and ferries.

It also has funding for electric grid modernization, something proponents say will promote renewable energy and serve as a foundation as the country moves toward electric vehicles and appliances. 

The bill also invests in clean water through removal and replacement of lead pipes and  cleaning up toxic substances the “forever chemicals” known by their acronym PFAS. Lead exposure has been linked to brain damage — particularly in children — while PFAS have been tied to health impacts including cancer and immune system problems.

It also provides funding for resilience to climate impacts like wildfires and flooding as well as provisions to clean up contaminated sites and abandoned mines and oil wells.

“It’s going to make significant, historic strides to take on the climate crisis,” President BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE said in a speech after Friday’s passage of the bill. 

But some advocates say the bill does not go far enough and called on lawmakers to quickly pass what is known as the Build Back Better Act, which includes a bulk of other climate-centered provisions.

That legislation contains actions like tax credits for clean energy and electric vehicles, and a program aimed at reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production.

It also contains additional environmental provisions like additional funding for lead pipe removal, repealing drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge and a ban on drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. 

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill fails to meaningfully address the climate crisis or advance environmental justice, which is why, next week, the House must pass the Build Back Better Act’s historic suite of climate investments,” said Ben Beachy, director of the Sierra Club's Living Economy Program. 

He pointed to an October analysis which found that the bipartisan bill would only have a “nominal” impact on lowering the country’s greenhouse gas emissions if it’s enacted without the Democrat-only package. 

Green groups have also criticized certain provisions of the bipartisan bill that they say do more harm than good.

These include measures that undermine environmental reviews in favor of speedier infrastructure permitting, could bolster an Alaska liquified natural gas project and fund buses that run on “alternative fuels,” which can include natural gas. 

However, the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill did come with a promise that could bolster the Democrat-only legislation, which lawmakers are still working on getting across the finish line.

Five House moderates pledged to support the reconciliation bill in a vote next week if its congressional cost estimate is consistent with a White House analysis. 

But that still leaves out Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better On The Money — Fed's inflation tracker at fastest pace since '82 Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE (D-W.Va.) who has expressed “concerns” about the social and climate spending bill.

While some expressed concern about where the climate and social spending package currently stands, others expressed more optimism.

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Elizabeth Gore, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior vice president for political affairs, said she believes that all sides are working in “good faith.”

“Passing the BIF, sending it to the president, that’s a big step forward. I think there’s good faith on all sides,” Gore said.  

“I don’t have concerns that this is going to be an exit ramp for moderate Democrats; I think that this is going to continue to move forward and may even give us some momentum,” she added. 

Advocates also said they’ll continue to apply pressure to get the reconciliation bill across the finish line as soon as possible. Both the House and Senate chambers are out this week.

“What we’re going to see over the next few days is an incredible amount of public engagement and constituents reaching out to their members and pushing them to pass this really popular bill and that’s going to continue to include Joe Manchin,” said Lena Moffitt, campaigns director for the environmental group Evergreen.