Equilibrium & Sustainability

Manchin set to make or break Biden’s climate pledge

President Biden’s pledge at the Glasgow climate summit to help slash methane emissions by 30 percent over the next nine years faces the significant obstacle of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who could embarrass the administration if he slaps down a proposal to tax methane.

The methane fee was rumored to have been jettisoned from the reconciliation package, and Democratic senators such as Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) have redoubled their effort to get it included.

But there is no deal yet, and Manchin is warning he won’t support anything that would penalize the oil and natural gas industries.

Democratic lawmakers viewed a tax on methane emissions as potentially easier to pass through the Senate than a tax on carbon emissions, but it now looks like including either proposal in the Build Back Better Act will be a heavy lift because of Manchin.

Policy experts and Democratic aides in Congress warn Biden will lose credibility on climate change with global leaders if he is unable to overcome Manchin’s skepticism over taxing methane.

“It would be completely embarrassing for Biden if someone in his own party blocked a major initiative that he just announced. It would undermine America’s global standing and just create problems in the future,” said Darrell West, the vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

West pointed out that the United States lost credibility in the international fight against climate change when former President Trump withdrew the nation from the Paris climate agreement, which former President Obama signed in 2016.

“Allies are wondering about America’s global leadership when presidents make promises but aren’t able to carry them out. It casts doubts on U.S. governance and the ability to deliver on pledges,” he added.

In Glasgow, Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a global partnership to cut the emission of methane gas by 30 percent by 2030.

Biden warned that methane is “one of the most potent greenhouse gases there is.”

When Senate negotiators dropped the $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program from the budget reconciliation package because of Manchin’s opposition, pro-environment progressives such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) identified a carbon tax and a methane tax as two proposals that could make up for its loss.

Edward Parson, the faculty director at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA, said Biden has a lot riding on his methane pledge.

“It’s super important for U.S. influence and credibility internationally and any aim for the U.S. to play anything like a leadership role,” he said.

Parson, however, said Biden doesn’t have to rely entirely on Congress to cut methane emissions in a meaningful way.

“Methane is actually a pretty suitable and easy object of control. And although the tax in the House reconciliation bill would help, it’s not necessary. Methane sources are similar enough in their particular activities in a way that you can control emissions pretty effectively though regulations, which in fact EPA has just done,” he said.

Joe Goffman, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, announced in Glasgow Thursday that the agency will bolster its plan for tackling methane emissions from oil and gas producers, promising a “supplemental proposal.”

But Democratic aides say legislative action on methane is crucial to safeguard against a future Republican president rolling back methane regulations.

One Senate Democratic aide said if Manchin kills the methane tax proposal “it would be an embarrassment to President Biden for sure.”

“For Biden to make a commitment on the world stage after so much was done to undermine climate relationships over the past four years when Trump was in office, and Joe Manchin then takes a step to undermine the president and his leadership, it would be an embarrassment for Joe Biden and it’s an embarrassment for Joe Manchin,” the aide added.

Democratic lawmakers say the methane pledge was one of the biggest developments to come out of the summit and the stakes are high for them to deliver on Biden’s promise.

“One of the biggest outcomes of the conference was the global pledge on methane. I’m really heartened by that,” said Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), who introduced legislation in March to cut methane waste by U.S. oil and gas producers.

“We’re really going to have to take the actual step of making it happen. Part of that is going to come from the Energy and Commerce Committee and part of it can come through a methane tax, but we’re going to really have to use all the levers we can to make this achievable,” she said.

But aides familiar with the negotiation in Congress over a methane tax say that Manchin now stands as the only obstacle to getting it passed through the Senate.

Manchin told The Hill last month that he’s worried a tax could be used to drive companies out of business. He wants to make sure a methane tax is structured in a way to incentivize innovation, and not to just penalize companies.

“You can’t use things as a hammer,” he warned. “You’ve got to give an incentive to do the right thing. … Methane pricing done wrong is very detrimental. It won’t happen.”

The methane tax appeared to be on the chopping block a few weeks ago because of Manchin’s opposition.

Reuters reported on Oct. 25 that the methane fee on oil and gas producers would “likely” be dropped from the reconciliation package, citing two sources familiar with the negotiation.

That same day, Carper and other Democratic chairs, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), met with Manchin to save the methane tax.

Carper told The Hill last week: “I think we’re going in a pretty good direction. It’s alive and there’s a good heartbeat.”

In a statement to The Hill Friday, Carper said he hopes to get significant methane legislation included in the reconciliation package. 

“Our methane emissions reduction program is a targeted, smart approach to tackle wasteful pollution while creating jobs and strengthening our economy. I’ve been working with my colleagues to find a path forward and I’m confident that we can get this over the finish line,” he said. 

An aide familiar with the negotiations noted that before the Veterans Day Recess the House Rules Committee posed a draft of the Build Back Better Act that included the methane tax and interpreted it as a sign that it has a good chance of being included in the final package.

The $1.75 trillion framework for the bill unveiled by the White House on Oct. 28, however, did not include the methane tax.

Alan Miller, who co-wrote a book with environmental activist Durwood Zaelke, titled “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now,” said the “recognition” at the Glasgow conference “that methane needs to be addressed separately and urgently is a significant achievement in and of itself.”

He said when he wrote the book in April there wasn’t much focus “on the very powerful short-lived climate pollutants, particularly with respect to methane” and that it’s a “big deal” that methane took center stage at the conference.

“It’s one of the signature achievements for which I think Biden and [U.S. climate envoy John] Kerry deserve considerable credit,” he said.

Tags Barack Obama Build Back Better Climate change Donald Trump Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Maria Cantwell Ron Wyden Sheldon Whitehouse Tom Carper
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