Dec 19, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The climate policy effects of Manchin's "no" on Build Back Better

Sen. Manchin
Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) decision Sunday to oppose President Biden's signature climate and social policy legislation imperils the administration's climate goals.

Why it matters: The package contained more than $300 billion in tax incentives for electric vehicles, clean energy deployment and other measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation was considered integral to achieving U.S. climate targets under the Paris Agreement.

The big picture: Had it moved forward, the legislation would have been the biggest climate legislation ever enacted by the U.S., and would have hastened the transition of the country's power and transportation sectors away from fossil fuels to renewable sources.

  • It would have also boosted research into ways to draw carbon dioxide, the main long-lived greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere, and to better capture emissions coming from coal and natural gas-fired power plants.

Details: The administration's climate goals are ambitious, and would have been difficult to meet even if the Build Back Better legislation was enacted. But now, the target of achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035, which the bill sought to hasten, and getting to net zero emissions by 2050, look even more remote.

  • The significance of the legislation to America's international leadership on climate change was made clear at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last month, when U.S. officials, including climate envoy John Kerry assured their international counterparts that the country's commitments would be met.
  • The White House on Sunday called Manchin's opposition "a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate."

What's next: Assuming the legislation is dead and cannot be revived in a different form, the Biden administration still has options for moving ahead on climate. These include pursuing regulatory and executive actions to crack down on emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.

  • However, the Supreme Court has signaled that it may look askance at expansive moves by the EPA or other agencies to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
  • Other options include potentially offering standalone legislation that contains some of the provisions that had been folded into Build Back Better.

Yes, but: Manchin's statement, released after his appearance on "Fox News Sunday," threw cold water on the standalone legislation route.

  • The senator, who represents a coal-producing state, said the transition away from fossil fuels is already "well underway," and indicated that the bill could endanger the reliability of the electrical grid.
  • He cited the failure of the Texas grid last year, which occurred due to record cold weather, offline natural gas plants and poor preparation by the state's main grid operator, rather than an over-reliance on renewables.
  • “In the last two years, as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and with bipartisan support, we have invested billions of dollars into clean energy technologies so we can continue to lead the world in reducing emissions through innovation," Manchin stated.
  • "But to do so at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow will have catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years."

There may also be increased pressure from environmental groups to push the White House to declare a "climate emergency," which could provide some flexibility for taking certain actions administratively, though they would not be nearly as sweeping in size or scope as the legislative route would have been.

The bottom line: The death of Build Back Better marks the beginning of a new phase of climate policymaking under the Biden administration, one that may feature a hodge-podge of approaches, but may not ultimately meet the benchmarks laid out.

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