After weeks of often intense negotiations, the White House and a group of Democratic and Republican senators finalized an infrastructure package Thursday that includes US$579 billion in new spending, but does little to address what President Joe Biden has acknowledged as the “existential threat” of climate change.
“The deal does provide funding for public transit, passenger and freight rail, electric buses, and charging stations for electric vehicles, all designed to try to reduce pollution from passenger vehicles and trucks,” the New York Times reports. “It includes $47 billion to help communities become more resilient to disasters and severe weather caused by a warming planet.”
Utility Dive says the plan also includes $73 billion in new spending on power grid infrastructure.
“The climate provisions the White House initially wanted have been, for the most part, eliminated from the package, but remnants of Biden’s original vision remain,” Grist writes, citing $7.5 billion over eight years for EV infrastructure $7.5 billion for electric buses and transit, $21 billion for environmental remediation, $49 billion for public transit infrastructure, and $55 billion for water infrastructure. “‘Resilience,’ an ill-defined category that could include climate resilience—meaning money for hardening communities against the effects of climate change like rising sea levels—will get $47 billion. The framework also proposes $5 billion for ‘Western water storage’,” with details of those line items yet to be released.
But ultimately, the bipartisan deal “contains few of the ambitious ideas that Mr. Biden initially proposed to cut the fossil fuel pollution that is driving climate change,” the Times writes. “The president had hoped to use a sweeping infrastructure bill as a vehicle to enact a national ‘clean electricity standard’ requiring power companies to gradually ratchet up the amount of electricity they generate from wind, solar, and other sources until they’re no longer emitting carbon dioxide. That is not included in the bipartisan bill, nor are the hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on tax incentives for wind, solar, and other clean energy.”
Biden still extolled the agreement as an example of bipartisan progress, The Associated Press writes. “When we can find common ground, working across party lines, that is what I will seek to do,” he said, characterizing the deal as “a true bipartisan effort, breaking the ice that too often has kept us frozen in place.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) had a decidedly different take, pointing to photos of 10 white legislators who gathered to declare a successful end to bipartisan negotiations.
“The diversity of this ‘bipartisan coalition’ pretty perfectly conveys which communities get centred and which get left behind when leaders prioritize bipartisan dealmaking over inclusive lawmaking (which prioritizes delivering the most impact possible for the most people),” she tweeted. “The exclusion & denial of our communities is what DC bipartisan deals require. That’s how you get GOP onboard: don’t do much/any for the working class & low income, or women, or [people of colour] communities, or unions, etc. We must do more.”
Now, with the votes in the U.S. Senate divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, the White House has been hoping to enact the wider elements of the American Jobs Plan through a legislative process that requires only a majority vote, with Vice-President Kamala Harris breaking ties in her role as Senate President. “But that’s a difficult proposition, as Senate rules require that legislation enacted through the reconciliation process pertain directly to federal revenue—such as taxes and spending,” the Times explains. “The Senate parliamentarian could determine that a clean electricity standard does not qualify.”
On Thursday, Biden said he was getting started on that plan immediately. And the administration’s allies in the U.S. climate and energy community are expecting nothing less.
The measure passed this week “does not reach the level of ambition we need to stave off the devastating impacts of the climate crisis,” Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations at Boston-based Ceres, told Utility Dive. “Businesses across the U.S. have championed the Biden administration’s goal to accelerate the transition to a just and sustainable net-zero emissions future, and a strong infrastructure package is necessary to help make progress toward that goal in this decade.”
U.S. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune warned that failure to adopt a more ambitious climate package will limit U.S. negotiators’ ability to push for faster, deeper carbon cuts at this year’s United Nations climate conference, COP 26, in Glasgow.
“The United States right now has an opportunity to back up its ambitious claims with a detailed and defensible plan to honour those commitments. If we have that plan we’ll be able to compel other countries to make similar changes,” he told the Times. But “if we don’t pass climate legislation through reconciliation, we won’t have the credibility to compel other countries to act at the scale and speed that’s needed.”
The Times has more on the fraught politics of getting anything useful through a divided U.S. Senate.