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Green groups launch $10 million ad campaign pressuring Biden, Congress to spend huge on climate

"The Great American Build" campaign aims to set an aggressive starting point for negotiations over the size and scope of the infrastructure package.
Image: Wyoming energy
The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo., on July 27, 2018.J. David Ake / AP file

A coalition of environmental groups backed by Democratic governors is launching a $10 million-plus ad campaign pressuring the Biden administration and Congress to spend trillions on climate change and clean energy as Washington gears up for its next fight over President Joe Biden's infrastructure and jobs plan.

Dubbed "The Great American Build," the campaign aims to set an aggressive starting point for negotiations over the size and scope of the infrastructure package, which is coming into focus as Biden's next major push after last week's passage of the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package.

Biden campaigned on spending even more on infrastructure and green jobs. But many Democrats have said they are concerned that his commitment to reaching out to Republicans, combined with a lack of appetite for another huge round of spending so soon after the Covid-19 deal, could lead to a scaled-back infrastructure deal that would fall short of the trillions they say is needed to address the climate problem.

The first TV ad, which starts airing Tuesday on cable, uses black-and-white images of blue-collar workers to argue that America's builders, roofers, electricians and steelworkers would be the ones to benefit from investing heavily in new, climate-friendly infrastructure, reinforcing the Biden administration's claim that clean infrastructure and jobs go hand in hand.

"Your country is calling you to rebuild America, to create a cleaner, safe, more prosperous future for all," the ad says. "Tackling climate change — this is the job of our lifetime."

Organizers said they were spending more than $10 million on the campaign, which will include grassroots organizing and additional TV ads. The first ad was produced by Pereira O'Dell, the advertising house that recently created an ad featuring former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama encouraging Covid-19 vaccinations as part of the It's Up To You campaign.

A key goal is to put more political pressure on lawmakers who campaigned on bold action on climate to deliver, said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power, which organized the campaign with the League of Conservation Voters and the Potential Energy Coalition.

"Americans elected pro-climate majorities in Congress, and they expect big things on the issues that drove them to the polls — including clean energy and climate change," Lodes said.

Still bruised from the last major climate push in Congress, the failed cap-and-trade attempt in 2009, Democrats and climate groups fear a potential repeat this year — particularly if support is siphoned off because of renewed concerns about job losses in the transition away from fossil fuels.

Biden, as a candidate, vowed an infrastructure plan of more than $2 trillion that would go far beyond traditional projects like bridges and roads to invest heavily in the technologies and capabilities to dramatically reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, such as building high-voltage transmission lines, retrofitting buildings for efficiency and installing half a million electric vehicle charging stations.

Image: Natural gas drilling in Texas
Floor hands and engineers adjust a down hole motor used for directional drilling on a natural gas drilling platform in the Barnett Shale in Fort Worth, Texas.Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images file

Some job losses, such as those in coal mining or oil pipelines, are unavoidable if the U.S. is to achieve Biden's goal of zeroing out U.S. emissions economywide by 2050. Jeff Navin, a former chief of staff at the Energy Department, said the political strategy behind Biden's climate proposals centers on aggressive spending to ensure that the net effect is to create more high-paying jobs than are lost.

"In some ways the bigger they go on the spending side, the easier it is to sell a broader climate package, because the net economic effect is pretty big," said Navin, who is now at the government affairs firm Boundary Stone Partners. "I think the climate groups rightly recognize that this is their moment for action."

Aiming to showcase broad support for climate spending, particularly in battleground states where Democrats are fighting to keep their slim House majority, the climate groups lined up statements of support from the Democratic governors of Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin, as well as other figures, including the mayor of Pittsburgh and leaders of several major unions.

"We can put millions back to work and prepare states like ours to face climate change while creating unprecedented economic opportunity for businesses and prosperity for our people," said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whose auto industry-dependent economy faces the potential for major disruption if the U.S. moves rapidly toward electric vehicles.

What exactly the infrastructure package will look like, and how Democrats will seek to get it through Congress, remains a work in progress, according to congressional aides and Biden administration officials involved in the process.

Although the administration's legislative focus has centered on the Covid-19 relief bill, behind the scenes his top advisers, including domestic climate envoy Gina McCarthy and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have been meeting with groups from various sectors, including the auto and airline industries, to gauge what's possible.

Biden has met with senators from both parties about the plan, which as a candidate he vowed would be the "largest mobilization of public investment since World War II."

Inherently linked to the debate is the looming question of how aggressively the U.S. will commit to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 under its renewed participation in the Paris Agreement, which former President Donald Trump withdrew from and Biden rejoined. That announcement, expected in April, will require laying out what exactly the U.S. plans to do domestically to meet the goal and demonstrating that there's the political support do to it.

Still, it's unclear whether the administration will seek to push the entire plan through as a single package, which would likely mean using the budget reconciliation process, which was used to pass the Covid-19 plan, to pass it with only Democratic votes. The strategy has faced new questions after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., suggested that he wouldn't support such a package if Biden sidestepped Republicans altogether.

The reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, which expires in September, could be an obvious vehicle to pass at least part of Biden's plan, lawmakers have said. Democratic lawmakers in the House and the Senate have been working on a renewal of that bill loaded with climate-related provisions, while other committees have begun work on energy and electricity legislation to move rapidly toward renewable power.

Those individual bills could be used to try to pass Biden's plan in piecemeal fashion or ultimately lumped together into one multitrillion-dollar package, congressional aides and federal officials said.