WASHINGTON — The most powerful part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda — a program to rapidly replace the nation’s coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear energy — will likely be dropped from the massive budget bill pending in Congress, according to congressional staffers and lobbyists familiar with the matter.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia whose vote is crucial to passage of the bill, has told the White House that he strongly opposes the clean electricity program, according to three of those people. As a result, White House staffers are now rewriting the legislation without that climate provision and are trying to cobble together a mix of other policies that could also cut emissions.
A spokesperson for the Biden administration declined to comment, and a spokesperson for Manchin did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The $150 billion clean electricity program was the muscle behind Biden’s ambitious climate agenda. It would reward utilities that switched from burning fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and penalize those that did not.
Experts have said that over the next decade the policy would dramatically reduce the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet and that it would be the strongest climate change policy ever enacted by the United States.
“This is absolutely the most important climate policy in the package,” said Leah Stokes, an expert on climate policy, who has been advising Senate Democrats on how to craft the program. “We fundamentally need it to meet our climate goals. That’s just the reality. And now we can’t. So this is pretty sad.”
The setback also means Biden will have a weakened hand when he travels to Glasgow, Scotland, in two weeks for a major United Nations climate change summit. He had hoped to point to the clean electricity program as evidence that the United States, the world’s largest emitter of planet-warming pollution, was serious about changing course and leading a global effort to fight climate change. Biden has vowed that the United States will cut its emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030.
The rest of the world remains deeply wary of the United States’ commitment to tackling global warming after four years in which former President Donald Trump openly mocked the science of climate change and enacted policies that encouraged more drilling and burning of fossil fuels.
“This will create a huge problem for the White House in Glasgow,” said David G. Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego.“ If you see the president coming in and saying all the right things with all the right aspirations and then one of the earliest tests of whether he can deliver falls apart, it creates the question of whether you can believe him.”
Democrats had hoped to include the clean electricity program in their sweeping budget bill that would also expand the social safety net, which they plan to muscle through using a fast-track process known as reconciliation that would allow them to pass it without any Republican votes. The party is still trying to figure out how to pass the budget bill along with a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
For weeks, Democratic leaders have vowed that the clean electricity program was a nonnegotiable part of the legislation. Progressive Democrats held rallies chanting “No climate, no deal!”
Biden had hoped enactment of the legislation would clean up the energy sector, which produces about one-quarter of the country’s greenhouse gases. He wanted a program with impacts that would last well after he leaves office, regardless of who occupies the White House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at an event in San Francisco on Friday morning that she was still pushing for the strongest possible climate change provisions in the bill.
“What we’re here today about is specifically about the climate piece,” Pelosi said. “This is our moment. We cannot — we don’t have any more time to wait.”
Democratic presidents have tried but failed to enact climate change legislation since the Clinton administration. During a year of record and deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and floods that scientists say are worsened by climate change, Democrats had hoped to finally garner enough political support to enact a strong climate law, even as scientific reports say that the window is rapidly closing to avoid the most devastating impacts of a warming planet.
A major scientific report released in August concluded that countries must rapidly and immediately shift away from burning fossil fuels in order to avoid a future of severe drought, intense heat waves, water shortages, devastating storms, rising seas and ecosystem collapse. To avert catastrophe, scientists say nations must keep the average global temperature from increasing 1.5 Celsius above preindustrial levels. But as countries continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the average global temperature has already risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius.
Even as Pelosi vowed in San Francisco to protect those climate provisions, at least four people in Washington close to the negotiations called the clean electricity program “dead.”
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., the chief author of the program, said that while dropping it might win Manchin’s vote on the budget bill, it could cost hers — and those of other environmentally minded Democrats.
“We must have strong climate action in the Build Back Better budget. I’m open to all approaches, but as I’ve said, I will not support a budget deal that does not get us where we need to go on climate action,” she said. “There are 50 Democratic senators, and it’s going to take every one of our votes to get this budget passed.”
Manchin, who has personal financial ties to the coal industry, had initially intended to write the details of the program as the chairman of the Senate committee on energy and natural resources. Manchin was considering a clean electricity program that would reward utilities for switching from coal to natural gas, which is less polluting but still emits carbon dioxide and can leak methane, another greenhouse gas. Manchin’s home state, West Virginia, is one of the nation’s top producers of coal and gas.
But in recent days, Manchin indicated to the administration that he was now completely opposed to a clean energy program, people familiar with the discussions said.
As a result, White House staffers are scrambling to calculate the impact on emissions from other climate measures in the bill, including tax incentives for renewable energy producers and tax credits for consumers who purchase electric vehicles. Unlike a clean energy program, tax incentives tend to expire after a set period of time, and do not have the market-shifting power of a more durable strategy.
Those other programs include about $300 billion to extend existing tax credits for utilities, commercial businesses and homeowners that use or generate electricity from zero-carbon sources such as wind and solar and $32 billion in tax credits for individuals who purchase electric vehicles. It could also include $13.5 billion for electric car charging stations and $9 billion to update the electric grid, making it more conducive to transmitting wind and solar power, and $17.5 billion to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from federal buildings and vehicles.
But, analysts say, while those spending programs will help make it easier and cheaper for the U.S. economy to transition to a lower-emissions future, they are unlikely to lead to the same kind of rapid reduction in emissions that the clean electricity program would have.
It is also possible that Democrats may try to push through the clean electricity program as a stand-alone bill — but the timeline for doing so is narrowing, with the 2022 midterm elections approaching.