The time has come for Democrats in Congress to debate the future of the fossil fuel industry as they write sweeping climate legislation that could define President Joe Biden’s legacy. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), a conservative Democrat and a key vote in the Senate, drew a line in the sand this week, telling fellow Democrats and media outlets that eliminating fossil fuels is off the table.
Instead of phasing out fossil fuels and investing heavily in cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar, Manchin and his allies in the Senate are pushing a plan to invest billions of federal tax dollars into nuclear energy and controversial technologies such as “carbon capture” that would allow industrial polluters to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels for years to come.
These dueling visions for producing energy during the rapidly intensifying climate crisis are expected to divide the conservative and progressive wings of the Democratic Party as lawmakers hash out climate provisions for a $3.5 trillion economic package over the next two months. Democrats agreed to a budget blueprint for the package this week, which will include new spending on health care, education and the environment financed by modest taxes increases on corporations and the wealthy that have yet to be ironed out.
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While few details have been released to the public, Manchin told CNN this week that he is “very, very disturbed” by provisions that he believes would eliminate fossil fuels. The provisions, which have only been outlined for the public, include a Clean Electricity Standard that will provide incentives for power utilities to decarbonize and reduce dependence fossil fuels in order to reach Biden’s goal of 100 percent carbon-free power by 2035. The provisions would allow utilities flexibility in choosing how to meet this goal, according to reports.
In a statement on Wednesday, Manchin joined other conservative and centrist Democrats in saying they would wait on throwing their support behind the Democrats’ economic plan until the details are hammered out. Manchin has already frustrated Democrats by refusing to reform filibuster rules so his party can pass voting rights legislation designed to counter GOP voter suppression efforts.
Republican opposition to the Democratic plan is expected to be nearly unanimous, leaving Senate Democrats dependent on votes from Manchin and other conservative and moderate Democrats in the Senate to pass a joint budget resolution with the House containing the party’s legislative priorities. At a luncheon on Thursday, Manchin assured fellow Democrats that he would not vote to block the resolution from advancing — as long as his concerns about financing and clean energy provisions aimed at moving energy utilities away from fossil fuels are addressed in negotiations among Democrats, according to The Hill.
“I want to sit down and be part of that, sure, and figure if we run into a roadblock, we’ll run into one later,” Manchin said. “But you don’t start out that way.”
Manchin, who hails from coal-heavy West Virginia and received more than $230,000 in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry in 2020 alone, outlined his energy vision in stark relief as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The Senate panel voted 13-7 on Wednesday to approve a $95 billion energy and infrastructure bill sponsored by Manchin that will shape a $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure package advancing separately from the Democratic economic plan. The bipartisan infrastructure package is seen as a potential bipartisan win for Biden, but progressives fear it would promote the privatization of public resources. Manchin said the vote was an “important reminder” that bipartisanship still works.
While some moderate green groups see the $95 billion bill as a step in the right direction on climate, environmental and climate justice groups excoriated the bill as a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry. An analysis by environmental groups found the bill would fund “dirty” energy over “clean” energy such as wind and solar by a ratio of 70 to 1.
“The Biden administration promised to center climate in its infrastructure investment. Manchin’s proposal does the opposite, lining the pockets of polluters with zero regard for the seriousness of the climate crisis,” said Sarah Lutz, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, in a statement.
Lutz and environmental groups are particularly concerned about $12.6 billion earmarked for “carbon capture and storage,” or CCS, a range of technologies that have been subsidized by the federal government for more than a decade but remain in development. CCS, which involves removing carbon pollution from industrial sources and pumping it underground, was originally intended to save the coal industry from irrelevance. Despite heavy federal investment, multiple “clean coal” power plant projects using CCS proved too costly and ultimately collapsed.
“Despite billions of dollars in subsidies, power plant CCS technology remains prohibitively expensive and has never lived up to industry’s optimistic projections for its efficacy,” said Mitch Jones, policy director at the environmental group Food and Water Watch, in an email. “But, even in a best-case scenario, even if the technology worked and was widely deployed, CCS would simply lead to more fracking, more drilling, and more mining of coal.”
Large fossil fuel companies view carbon capture as a way to expand their business and maintain fossil fuel production as wealthier countries and multinational corporations work to reduce emissions that are driving catastrophic climate change. House Democrats also hope carbon capture might help reduce emissions from various industries and create a “market” for captured carbon. However, that carbon would require new (and potentially dangerous) pipelines for transport. Activists are already challenging new fossil fuel pipelines across the country.
Manchin’s bill contains funding for developing technology that would remove carbon from the air in highly polluted areas, but experts warn that carbon capture is a dangerous distraction from the goal of reducing emissions to the extent that scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Environmental justice advocates and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council say that carbon capture would only further entrench polluting industries in low-income areas and communities of color that are already choking on toxic emissions.
“When we include the methane emissions from increased fossil fuel production, CCS only reduces electricity sector emissions by 39 percent,” Jones said. “That means tons of greenhouse gas emissions will continue to spew into the atmosphere every year. That’s not clean; it’s reckless.”
Lutz and other climate activists also oppose the bill’s $9.2 billion “giveaway” to the nuclear energy industry, including a $6 billion bailout for aging reactors. While nuclear power plants produce less climate-warming emissions than burning coal, for example, environmentalists say the mining and enriching of uranium for nuclear energy is carbon-intensive and creates harmful radioactive waste.
The wealthy fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists have long held considerable influence over members of Congress, marginalizing the voices of communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. As Democrats piece together the climate portions of what is expected to be the signature legislation produced by the current Congress, the fossil fuel industry will fight to maintain its dominance in the energy sector. The debate over what defines “clean” and “dirty” energy may also define the Democrats’ climate legacy for decades to come.