This is not the transformative climate deal that activists have been pushing for.
Many of the promises President Joe Biden made on the campaign trail and early in his presidency — to slash rising greenhouse gas emissions and prepare America’s aging infrastructure for a changed climate — were missing from his announcement Thursday that 21 senators had reached a bipartisan $973 billion infrastructure deal.
“It is in no way, shape, or form a substitute for a comprehensive climate bill,” Leah Stokes, a UC Santa Barbara political scientist and adviser to the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, told Vox. On its own, “it could even have some emissions increases, potentially.”
But Stokes added that the infrastructure deal should not be considered on its own, because Democrats have a plan for passing more ambitious climate action.
Facing Republican opposition, the slim Democratic majority in Congress is pursuing its climate agenda on two tracks. Now that they have an initial bipartisan deal, they will try the once-obscure parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation, which allows Congress to pass budget-related matters through a simple Senate majority — which Democrats have. Top Democrats, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to President Biden, say there will be no infrastructure package without a reconciliation bill that includes many of their priorities that were left out of the Senate deal, including those dealing with climate change.
Getting both done will be tricky — already some Republicans who had signed on to the bipartisan deal are backing away from it after Biden announced the two-pronged approach, and Democrats will face tense internal debates about how big the reconciliation bill should be.
The compromise announced Thursday included a scaled-down version of Biden’s original $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. A large portion of the bipartisan deal, $109 billion, injects funding into repairing and building roads, bridges, and other major projects. There’s $66 billion set aside for passenger and freight rail, $49 billion for public transit, and $55 billion for water infrastructure. Climate actions to lower emissions are among the least ambitious parts of this deal.
While it’s not clear which climate policies are on the table now, what’s missing from the infrastructure deal tells us a great deal about what could be coming next. And it’s possible to identify top Democratic priorities by looking closely at everything that dropped out of Biden’s original American Jobs Plan.
What’s missing from the deal
The bipartisan infrastructure package comes nowhere close to meeting Biden’s goal of cutting US climate pollution 50 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. In some sectors, the funding is a small fraction of what Biden proposed in his American Jobs Plan, and an even smaller fraction of what experts have modeled to transform the economy. But in most cases, there’s no funding at all for cleaning up the power sector and building pollution and addressing racial injustices.
Here are key areas that are missing compared to the original American Jobs Plan:
- The first federal clean electricity standard: This power sector has gotten a lot cleaner the past decade, as natural gas and renewables have become more cost-competitive than coal-fired power plants, but that change is uneven across the country. To go further, the original American Jobs Plan proposed that Congress set a standard for utilities to ratchet up their renewable commitments to reach 80 percent clean energy by 2030. Economists and environmentalists consider it one of the most critical policies to address climate pollution quickly.
- Federal investments and tax credits for clean energy: Congress would have to follow up with serious cash to transform the grid into a clean power sector. Spending could take a few different forms, from direct federal investment to expanding tax credits for renewables.
- A phaseout of fossil fuel subsidies: The federal government actively helps keep fossil fuels artificially cheap through almost $15 billion annually in subsidies for oil, gas, and coal, according to an analysis by the environmental group Oil Change International. That’s far more than the government spends on clean energy subsidies. Every Democratic president in recent memory has pledged to cut these subsidies, including Biden, but budgetary action requires Congress.
- Cleaning up transportation pollution: The investments for electric vehicle infrastructure like charging stations and tax credits are much smaller in the bipartisan deal, at $15 billion compared to $174 billion in the American Jobs Plan. Likewise, the deal allots $28.5 billion less for public transit than the original proposal.
- Investing in communities disproportionately affected by climate change: Biden pledged that the lion’s share of any federal funding — 40 percent — would go to places that are hit hardest by pollution and climate impacts, often communities of color. There were many other commitments to these frontline communities throughout the American Jobs Plan, including $20 billion to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by highways. The bipartisan deal only allots $1 billion for that effort.
- Research and development for climate solutions: Biden previously called for $35 billion in clean energy research, development, and deployment, which didn’t make it into the bipartisan proposal.
“Whether you’re looking at public transit or clean energy, or retrofitting buildings, the economic modeling shows that to meet Biden’s goal of cutting climate pollution in half by 2030, while delivering full employment and advancing racial economic and environmental justice, Congress needs to go much bigger and bolder,” Ben Beachy, director of A Living Economy for Sierra Club, said.
The chart below, based on data gathered by the Sierra Club, compares the two plans. One key piece of the Biden plan that’s missing entirely from the bipartisan deal is $400 billion in energy spending dedicated to clean energy tax credits.
What this deal does do for climate
It’s hard to gauge exactly how much the bill would curb greenhouse gas emissions at this point, but parts of the bipartisan Senate deal would help shrink the US’s carbon footprint.
Funding for public transit, electric school buses, and half a million electric vehicle chargers would help cut carbon dioxide emissions from driving. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the US, and cars and light trucks account for 60 percent of emissions in the sector.
The second-largest source of greenhouse gases in the US is electricity production. The framework doesn’t specifically call for more clean energy on the power grid, but it includes $73 billion for power infrastructure, like transmission. Transmission lines can link areas that need energy with places where wind and solar power are cheap, which can be separated by thousands of miles. This would help boost the business case for wind and solar power. The proposal calls for a new grid authority to facilitate clean energy transmission, and an infrastructure financing authority to help come up with the money to pay for it.
Another key climate provision is what the White House called the “largest investment in addressing legacy pollution in American history” — $21 billion allocated to environmental remediation.
There are more than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells across the US leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to take just one example. These leaks emit the equivalent emissions of burning 16 million barrels of crude oil per year — and the Environmental Protection Agency says that may be a drastic undercount.
Plugging these wells would therefore go a long way toward reducing the US greenhouse gas emissions. And since many of these wells are in rural areas or places with fossil fuel development, stopping leaks could also be a jobs strategy.
“It can really help with the transition for oil and gas production workers into remediation, and similarly for some of the coal communities, they could employ a lot of people remediating coal mining,” said Dan Lashof, the US director of the World Resources Institute. “That may not be called out as an economic transition strategy, but I think it should be seen as part of that.”
The proposal also calls for $47 billion in spending on resilience, which includes bolstering infrastructure against “the impacts of climate change, cyber attacks, and extreme weather events.”
However, the deal also contains elements that observers worry could undermine progress on climate change. The new construction of roads, bridges, and power lines in the proposal is likely to be resource- and energy-intensive. While the White House calls for these investments to be made with “a focus on climate change mitigation,” it’s not clear yet how this would be enforced.
“If you put a condition on the federal funding for some of these projects that require using low-carbon concrete and steel, that would improve that aspect of it,” Lashof said.
In addition, some of the new infrastructure will go to benefit cars, shipping, and airplanes that use fossil fuels. The proposal calls for $25 billion for airports and $16 billion for ports and waterways, for example.
Whether the emissions reductions from the electric vehicles and other environmental line items in the proposal will outweigh the emissions increases from construction and infrastructure for the fossil-fuel-dependent sectors of the economy remains to be seen. That’s why many Democrats also want a separate climate-focused bill to pass alongside the Senate deal.
Will there be a climate deal?
Many Democrats have rallied around the promise “no climate, no deal.” Biden reinforced the message Thursday, saying he will not sign an infrastructure bill without another bill on his desk addressing climate change, a point echoed by both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
That means Democrats are publicly betting the farm on advancing the second track of their climate strategy: reconciliation.
“In effect, that means no reconciliation package, no bipartisan deal,” Beachy told Vox. “Congress must move a big, bold infrastructure package that tackles the climate crisis, curbs injustice and creates millions of good jobs before moving any bipartisan deal.”
There are two major caveats to Democrats’ promise: First, the announcement this week was just the broad brushstrokes of a bill, so it’s not a done deal yet. There’s also the mystery about the contents of the reconciliation package — much of which will depend on moderate Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
But the possibilities open under reconciliation give climate experts hope that Congress may still meet the gravity of the climate crisis.
“I’m very optimistic, to be honest,” Stokes said. “I think that President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and Leader Schumer are all deeply committed to climate action and we need to make sure they stay committed. The lines have been drawn, and we will be passing a climate bill this summer. I feel pretty certain about that.”