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Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) speaks at an "End Fossil Fuel" rally organized by Our Revolution near the U.S. Capitol on June 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Demonstrators called on Congress to take action in ending fossil fuel subsidies. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images)

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) speaks at an "End Fossil Fuel" rally organized by Our Revolution near the U.S. Capitol on June 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Demonstrators called on Congress to take action in ending fossil fuel subsidies. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images)

Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill 'Doubling Down on Support for Carbon Polluters' With $25 Billion in Subsidies, Critics Warn

"We need massive investments in proven renewable solutions, not carbon capture fantasies."

Kenny Stancil

While Democratic leaders have described the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill as "a significant down payment" toward addressing the climate emergency, environmental justice advocates are warning that the proposed legislation—which reportedly includes billions of dollars in potential new subsidies for dirty energy projects disguised as solutions—threatens to prolong the life of the planet-wrecking fossil fuel industry.

"The Senate is proposing that we spend tens of billions of dollars propping up fossil fuel corporations."
—Mitch Jones, Food & Water Watch

Citing an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law, The Intercept reported Tuesday that "the latest draft bill would make fossil fuel companies eligible for at least $25 billion in new subsidies." According to the news outlet, public money would go toward unproven technologies, including carbon capture and so-called clean hydrogen, that are "sold as dream fixes for ending the nightmare of the climate crisis without the colossal political hurdle of dislodging the fossil fuel industry from the U.S. economy."

Given that energy policy experts have called for transitioning as quickly as possible to a completely renewable energy system, critics warn that investments of the kind included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill could exacerbate coal, gas, and oil extraction, condemning vulnerable populations and future generations to the most catastrophic effects of the climate emergency.

"We will never be able to meet the Paris agreement if we fund these kind of programs," Jim Walsh, senior policy analyst at Food & Water Watch, told The Intercept, referring to the international climate accord that seeks to limit global temperature rise this century to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by cutting the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in half by 2030 on the way to "net-zero" by 2050.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill "would support the development of four petrochemical hubs that would create profit incentives for greenhouse gas emission production and would be focused on finding new ways of integrating fossil fuels into our economy for transportation, energy, petrochemical development, and plastics," according to Walsh. He added that "this deal envisions a world where we will use fossil fuels into perpetuity."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—the same lawmaker who has made more than $4.5 million from his family's coal business since joining the Senate in 2010 and received praise from an ExxonMobil lobbyist for weakening the climate provisions in President Joe Biden's infrastructure proposal—is the chief architect of the energy-related measures in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

An amended version of Manchin's Energy Infrastructure Act—which progressives denounced last month for proposing to spend 70 times more on fossil fuels than renewables—"will serve as the legislative text for key portions" of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, according to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that the West Virginia Democrat chairs.

Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said Tuesday in a statement that the bipartisan infrastructure bill "is not a down payment on real climate action—it is doubling down on support for climate polluters."

"The Senate is proposing that we spend tens of billions of dollars propping up fossil fuel corporations—this is on top of the $15 billion these companies already receive every year from the federal government," said Jones. "A substantial share of this new money—about $12 billion—would go to promoting carbon capture, which does absolutely nothing but extend the life of the fossil fuel era."

Some progressive critics have characterized carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) as polluter-friendly schemes that allow the fossil fuel industry to benefit from additional public subsidies while undermining efforts to slash emissions as thoroughly and rapidly as possible.

In addition to the possibility of leaks and contamination, progressives warn that large-scale sequestration efforts are "false solutions" that could legitimate further fossil fuel extraction and forestall robust climate action. If CCS is treated as an alternative to ambitious mitigation and adaptation policies, critics argue, then it could divert attention from the pressing need for decarbonization.

Other progressives, including Christian Parenti, associate professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York, have argued that even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide today, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is so high that certain negative consequences can only be avoided if carbon is removed.

However, Parenti, who has long emphasized the need to "euthanize the fossil fuel industry," stresses that the state should only implement CCS or CCUS as public utilities to strip excess carbon from the atmosphere while the rest is kept underground—not to justify a continuation of the status quo.

In addition to carbon capture, the bipartisan infrastructure bill includes billions of dollars in public funding for "hydrogen fuel made from natural gas and 'low emissions buses' that could run on fuels including hydrogen and natural gas," The Intercept reported. "It also encourages subsidies that go unquantified in the legislation, for example urging states to waive property taxes for pipelines to transport captured carbon."

According to The Intercept:

So-called clean or "blue" hydrogen would use carbon capture and storage to neutralize the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the process. Another type of the fuel, called "green" hydrogen, uses electricity drawn from renewables.

Neither "blue" nor "green" means of hydrogen production, however, are widely used. For instance, only two facilities in the world have tried to commercially produce decarbonized "blue" hydrogen. As a result, 96% of hydrogen fuel globally comes from carbon-intensive means of production, according to a 2019 report. Research out of Stanford and Cornell universities indicates hydrogen produces more climate-warming gases than simply using natural gas directly.

At a time when "the survival of the fossil fuel industry depends on its ability to convince the public that corporations are taking steps to address the climate crisis," The Intercept noted, "ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron, just to name a few, have touted their investments in hydrogen and carbon capture."

The irony, as the news outlet pointed out, is that "long-shot, industry-supported 'climate' projects" and "the rapid scale-up of renewable energy sources already proven to meaningfully slow down the spiraling climate crisis" both depend on government subsidies. The key difference, however, is that "wind and solar work as climate fixes right now, while carbon capture and 'decarbonized' hydrogen do not."

Jones emphasized that "while handing money to dirty energy companies might help win votes in the Senate, it fails the only test that matters: Whether or not we are taking meaningful action to address our mounting climate crisis."

"Throwing away money is not going to reduce emissions," he added. "We need massive investments in proven renewable solutions, not carbon capture fantasies. If the Senate cannot manage to get this right, climate champions in the House will need to strip out these wasteful dirty energy subsidies."

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