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What the collapse of Build Back Better would mean for climate change

Manchin said he won't vote for Biden's social safety net and climate bill. If it fails, there is no clear path for the U.S. to meet its climate goals.
A firefighter battles the Alisal fire along the 101 Freeway near Goleta, Calif., on Oct. 12, 2021.
A firefighter battles the Alisal fire along Highway 101 near Goleta, Calif., on Oct. 12.Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

WILMINGTON, Del. — The likely demise of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation would have devastating consequences for U.S. efforts to combat climate change, making it nearly impossible for the U.S. to meet its emissions-cutting pledges under the Paris Agreement.

An overwhelming majority of Biden’s proposed climate change investments were in the $1.75 trillion bill; a smaller amount was included in the bipartisan infrastructure law that he signed last month.

If the opposition to the bill by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., which he announced Sunday in a television interview, holds firm, the Biden administration would be hard-pressed to find other funding streams and executive actions to make up the yawning gap.

The sweeping spending bill, which passed the House last month, had included $555 billion in climate-related programs, by far the largest investment in tackling global warming in U.S. history.

In April, Biden committed the U.S. to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, an ambitious goal that would require drastically cutting pollution from electricity, transportation and manufacturing. Achieving the goal would help put the U.S. on track to zero out its emissions throughout the economy by 2050, in line with what scientists say is needed globally to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

The biggest step Biden proposed was called the Clean Energy Performance Program, or CEPP, in which the government would have paid utility companies that switch quickly from fossil fuels to clean energy and fined those that do not. Electricity accounts for one-quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Manchin's opposition In October forced Democrats to drop the CEPP from the Build Back Better package. Manchin, whose state relies heavily on coal and whose family is personally invested in the coal industry, argued that the power industry is already shifting to clean energy sources and that paying utility companies to make the switch was unnecessary.

In the wake of the setback, the White House argued that it could still meet the administration’s 2030 target even without the CEPP. White House officials repeatedly cited an analysis by the research firm Rhodium Group, which found that achieving the 50 percent reduction without the electricity program was still technically possible.

However, the analysis assumed that other tax incentives and energy provisions in the Build Back Better Act would survive, particularly generous tax credits for buying electric vehicles and for renewable energy projects like wind and solar. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., latched on to the analysis to say the tax provisions alone would be responsible for a cut in electricity emissions of up to 73 percent within a decade.

Manchin had opposed many of those tax provisions, too, including a fee on methane emissions in some versions of the bill that he felt were redundant given upcoming EPA regulations on methane. He also objected to limiting tax credits for electric cars and trucks to those made with union labor, describing the requirement as anti-capitalist.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Sunday that major climate and clean energy components of the bill had already been negotiated and that the financing had been worked out.

“Let’s pass these provisions now,” Markey said. “We cannot let this moment pass.”

If the entire bill is scrapped, there is no clear pathway for the U.S. to meet its goals. That was made clear last month at the U.N. global climate summit in Scotland, where some foreign diplomats questioned U.S. resolve on climate given Democrats’ failure to pass significant legislation before the conference.

Manchin said in a statement Sunday outlining his opposition to the bill that the “energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway” and predicted that the U.S. would continue to lead the world in greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

“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,” Manchin wrote.

He appeared to be alluding to the Texas power crisis in February, after which critics of renewable energy made widely debunked claims that reliance on wind and solar was responsible for massive power outages. In California, about one-third of electricity comes from renewable sources like wind and solar, with rolling blackouts in recent summers blamed on extreme heat and on wildfire risks.

“Sen. Manchin’s statement about the climate provisions in Build Back Better are wrong,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Sunday. “Build Back Better will produce a job-creating clean energy future for this country — including West Virginia.”

The Rhodium analysis that found that the U.S. could meet its goals without the electricity program also assumed that stringent new regulations from the EPA and other federal entities would significantly curtail pollution.

The regulations, which are being developed now by the Biden administration, are almost certain to be challenged in court, as was former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which never took effect because of legal challenges. Blocking Biden’s regulations in court would push the U.S. even further away from meeting its greenhouse gas-cutting goals.

Within hours of Manchin’s announcement, environmental and climate advocacy groups responded with panic and frustration while vowing that the fight was not over. The Natural Resources Defense Council warned that “failure is not an option,” while the League of Conservation Voters declared that “this is not the end of the road.”

“We are more determined than ever, and we will keep fighting like hell to ensure the Build Back Better Act becomes law,” said the league's senior vice president, Tiernan Sittenfeld.