US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks about on the third plank of his Build Back Better economic recovery plan for working families, on July 21, 2020, in New Castle, Delaware. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP/ via Getty Images)

How 'Build Back Better' Could Undermine Climate Action

Bold climate policies cannot include doling out billions in dirty energy handouts.

Not that we needed the reminder, but the United Nations just pointed out that our current emissions reduction goals are inadequate when compared to what is necessary to address the actual scale of the climate crisis. The infrastructure proposal known as the Build Back Better Act is being touted as our best chance to get strong climate action under the Biden administration. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry and their allies in Congress are actively working to undermine what needs to be done.

While the proposal's $3.5 trillion price tag gets the most attention, the actual nuts and bolts of the proposal are what will really matter. It is not just about creating a national clean energy program (dubbed the Clean Electricity Payment Program, or CEPP) but making sure that any such plan supports truly clean sources of energy.

As a dizzying last few weeks of legislative action kick off, here are some key things to watch:

Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies

The most glaring problem with many of the proposals on the table is actually something that is missing: Ending up to $15 billion in domestic fossil fuel subsidies. While the White House included repealing the subsidies in its own budget proposal, and over 50 members of the House have spoken out in strong support of ending these giveaways, the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal (D- Mass) refused to include a repeal of any domestic subsidies for the fossil fuel industry when the tax portion of the bill was in his committee.

Despite Neal's choice to side with fossil fuel interests, all is not lost in this fight. The Rules Committee can make major changes to the version of the bill that was voted out of Neal's committee. Whether they do the right thing rests largely with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has to decide if she will side with the dozens of Democrats calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies or the seven Texas Democrats who seem more worried about protecting industry profits.

There is also an opportunity to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies when the Build Back Better Act goes to the Senate, where key Senators are standing much stronger than their House counterparts. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is suggesting the Senate reconciliation package will end fossil fuel subsidies, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden has said we should relegate subsidies "to the dustbin of history."

Keeping Dirty Energy Out of Any Clean Energy Plan

The CEPP envisions a new program that would reward utility companies for increasing their share of clean energy every year, and penalizing those that fall short of the goals in the law.

While creating a clean energy standard can be a helpful climate tool, there are still many specifics to be determined. One bit of good news came earlier this month, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a version of the CEPP that included a strong carbon intensity factor, which would make it nearly impossible for fracked gas plants to qualify as clean power sources. However, whether that actually means an end to new gas plants is still in question. Recent reports suggest that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is pushing a watered-down CEPP: Weaker clean energy goals, eliminating the penalties for utilities that do not comply with the program, and even allowing the building of new fracked gas plants. That's not a clean electricity program, it's a disaster for our planet and the frontline communities suffering from air and water pollution.

Whether or not Manchin gets what he wants, the Energy Department will eventually write the final set of rules about what meets the definition of 'clean' electricity, which could set the stage for even more support for fossil fuel friendly schemes like carbon capture, hydrogen and biogas. Given Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm's support for these false solutions, it would be a huge mistake for Congress to leave a key under the mat for the fossil fuel industry.

Under the CEPP framework, the best approach would be for Congress to heavily penalize the use of dirty energy, and restrict clean energy funding to truly clean sources such as solar and wind. Senator Schumer will need to rally the Democratic caucus to press Senator Manchin to stop shilling for Exxon, and start helping the people of West Virginia transition off their reliance on the fossil fuel industry.

Funding Fossil Fuel Industry Scams

Unfortunately, the Build Back Better Act is following the lead of the bipartisan infrastructure package by laying out billions in direct subsidies for fossil fuel industry scams like hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and factory farm gas. We cannot keep providing billions to the fossil fuel industry and pretending it's a win for climate action.

Incorporating these wasteful infrastructure proposals into the Build Back Better Act would ramp up fossil fuel development at a time when we should be rapidly scaling it back. While he refused to remove existing domestic fossil fuel subsidies from his committee's proposal, Rep. Neal actually increased funding for fossil fuels by extending tax breaks for carbon capture and storage and creating new subsidies for fossil fuel-based hydrogen. There are also lawmakers pushing for other fossil fuel industry scams like pollution pricing and carbon offsets, which do nothing to reduce climate-warming emissions, and will build more dependence on the fossil fuels industry by essentially tying government funding to continuing pollution.

There is intense corporate lobbying underway to derail or dilute various aspects of the Build Back Better Act. These activities are likely to escalate in the days ahead; as it stands now, a small group of lawmakers have the power to rein in what could very well be our best chance at enacting meaningful climate legislation along a suite of other spending priorities. Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Schumer and President Biden will largely decide what is in or out of this package, and they will make that decision on their ability to get something passed. It is up to us to push to make sure they know that we need them to pass a real clean energy plan, not one that continues propping up fossil fuels at the expense of our climate and frontline communities.

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