Is President Biden’s Climate Agenda Toast? What Do You Know, Joe?
The Manchin saga continues. In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the aftermath of Manchin's abrupt announcement on Fox Sunday News a week before Christmas that he would not be voting in favor of President Biden's Build Back Better act (BBB)—or what was left of it. He'd already whacked away at the original $3.5 trillion—reducing it by half.
The announcement unleashed a torrent of condemnation from congressional Democrats and some White House staff. Things have calmed. Attention is now being directed towards the possibility of a smaller and more focused package. Think of it as going from BBB to bbb.
Biden and the Democrats have a lot riding on the Build Back Better act. Eighty percent of the President's once-in-a-generation investments in climate, healthcare, jobs training, child care, universal pre-kindergarten, etc., are in the one bill.
There's a lot of anger towards Manchin that's unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Progressive Democrats feel betrayed after agreeing to deal separately with the bipartisan infrastructure and BBB bills.
Representative Ocasio-Cortez and other House progressives had warned that treating the bills separately would only make the passage of the BBB more difficult. Representative Jayapal (D-WA), who chairs the 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, issued a press release following Manchin’s Fox News announcement:
Today, Senator Manchin has betrayed his commitment not only to the President and Democrats in Congress but most importantly, to the American people. He routinely touts that he is a man of his word, but he can no longer say that. West Virginians, and the country, see clearly who he is.
They gave up the only leverage they had in return for what they believed would be relatively quick action by Senate Democrats to pass a version of the House bill.
In another time and place, a single member of Congress wouldn't have this kind of power. The Democrats are in the Senate majority only as long as the 50 members vote in a block—giving Vice President Harris the tie-breaking vote.
Manchin is the most powerful politician in Capitol City at the moment. Undoubtedly, Manchin knows this opportunity is unlikely to pass his way again. He's taking full advantage of his position—seemingly with little regard for the positions of his President and party.
As I'll explain, Manchin's torpedoing the Senate debate and vote on the House-passed version of the bill is contrary to the interests of the people of West Virginia—especially those who can no longer rely on the coal industry for their livelihood?
Manchin is the man—booyah!
As swift as the condemnations of Manchin by Democrats were the lauded praises of Republicans. Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) and Trump's pet Lindsay Graham (R-SC) are encouraging the West Virginia senator to join the Republican Party. Whether he does or not, he's serving its needs.
Manchin's talk of the link between fossil fuels and the nation's welfare is bunk. However, Republicans are embracing it and using it to give weight to their own fossil fuel fantasies.
Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska crowed:
President Biden's mega-spending bill is dead, and Joe Manchin put the nail in the coffin. With a divided country, a 50-50 Senate, and blowout inflation, the American people don't want to upend this country with nakedly partisan legislation. (Emphasis added)
I would suggest that the bill is partisan because Republicans are unwilling to engage in the debate—content to let Manchin plead their case.
There's irony afoot as well. Sasse represents a state whose utilities have all committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. Early in December, the Nebraska Public Power District (NPDD) board voted to reach the 2050 goal. With NPDD's approval, nearly every Nebraskan now receives electricity from a utility dedicated to carbon neutrality.
Josh Moenning, the mayor of Norfolk, Nebraska, called northeast Nebraska the renewable energy hotbed of the state. He has also said—
I'd much rather use clean energy that's made in our backyard than haul it in on a coal train from Wyoming, which is the status quo in Nebraska.
Nebraskans are hardly alone. Twenty states are now on record, having committed to carbon-free goals.
Even in West Virginia, coal is not the future
Senator Manchin has said he opposes using federal dollars for a transition that's already happening. According to James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law, it's not happening in West Virginia.
President Trump promised to help coal miners and mine owners and didn't—because he couldn't. Coal's problem is its cost in dollars, not regulation or the rise of renewables like solar and wind. According to Christine Risch, natural gas has done most of the work in killing off coal. Risch is the director of research for the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
Shortly after Manchin refused to support the President's BBB, even the United Mine Workers (UMWA) expressed its disappointment. The union's President, Cecil E. Roberts, called for the Senator to pass something that will help keep coal miners working and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.
Roberts is right. It's not just about the jobs. It's about retooling and diversifying the economies of coal states by investing in new industries and skills training. While working miners may represent only two or three percent of West Virginia's economy, the sector contributes between 15 and 20 percent to the State's GDP. Closed plants mean lower tax revenues and reductions in basic government services, e.g., trash collection.
Where Trump offered blah, blah, blah, the Biden administration is investing in West Virginia and other fossil fuel states to help prepare and position their populations to survive the transition to a cleaner energy future. Secretary of Energy Granholm recently announced her Department's investment of $127 million in various West Virginia projects, e.g., rare earth and critical mineral production in fossil fuel communities and fuel cell innovation.
The transition won't be easy—especially for a state that leads the nation in its reliance on coal for electricity. It's a big number at 88 percent. There is a silver lining, but it takes deliberate action.
A report issued by the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law estimates that over the next 15 years, West Virginia could meet three quarters of its electric needs from renewable resources.
According to university researchers:
Getting to 80 percent of emission-free power in this state would spur nearly $21 billion in new investment and put $172 million more every year into the pockets of West Virginians and create tens of thousands of new jobs all over the state.
Manchin, like Sasse, mischaracterizes the direction in which the nation's electric utilities are moving. It's estimated that between 75 and 86 percent of the coal-fired power plants in the United States will soon be more expensive to operate than renewables, i.e., solar and wind energy facilities.
Two major electric utilities serving West Virginia and several surrounding states have established target dates to become net-zero emitters of greenhouse gas emissions. American Electric Power (AEP) has set a target of 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. First Energy's interim target is 30 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. Together these two power providers account for five percent of the total US capacity.
Programs like the national clean electric standard that Biden originally proposed in the BBB. The standard would have rewarded utilities to reach their net-zero targets earlier and in a more deliberative manner. The proposed standard would have provided cash incentives to electric utilities as they moved away from fossil fuels.
Both Manchin and Sasse mischaracterize where voters are on Biden's climate agenda. Polling shows voters—as a group—are supportive of the climate-related provisions in the BBB.
Figure 1 shows substantial voter support for clean domestic energy sources. Although party affiliation continues to have a lot to do with who is and isn't in favor of federal investments in clean energy sources, even Republican voters show a plurality of support at 49 percent. Democrats and independents strongly prefer clean energy sources at 78 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
The general support for clean sources is carried over into the specific energy provisions in the BBB. As shown in Figure 2, investments in homes, buildings, schools, et al. are viewed as very important by 42 percent of those polled. An additional 42 percent of the respondents consider such investments as somewhat important.
Just as voters value clean energy investments, they favor phasing out government subsidies and financial incentives for fossil fuels. It is something I'm sure that is not lost on either Senator Manchin or Sasse—whether or not they and other naysayers are willing to admit it.
Oddly, support for the climate provisions doesn't directly translate into support for the actual bill. I think the disconnect is more about messaging and partisanship than it is anything else. Democrats need to come to grips with their messaging if they expect to have any chance of holding on to their very slim congressional majorities.
Manchin seems to be getting an awful lot of his information from the West Virginia Coal Association (WVCA) and America's Power (AP). Both are coal industry spawns. The President of WVCA told Manchin that the tax credits in the BBB would have resulted in an almost total displacement of coal generation within a relatively short period of time. Those provisions were more onerous and more likely to displace coal-fired generation than the clean energy standard. (Emphasis added)
The clean electric standard was one of the first things that Manchin managed to rip out of the BBB package. Clean energy analysts considered the standard to be the most impactful of President Biden's proposed climate-related policies.
Judging from what Manchin said in his Fox Sunday News interview, he appears to agree with the chief executive of America's Power, Michelle Bloodworth, about the negative impact of the BBB's clean energy tax credits on the grid and the grid coal sector. Bloodworth said the credits would endanger reliability because they would speed the retirement of coal and natural gas plants.
The "reliability argument" is disputed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and many university and laboratory researchers. NREL field studies show that solar, wind, and hybrid power plants can provide their own source of grid stability.
Admittedly, there are problems with the US power grid. However, they are not particularly the fault of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The reliability issue has been the focus of many Republican lawmakers. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) tried blaming wind power for the problems the Texas grid experienced in the winter of 2020-21. Although false, Republican lawmakers continue to lay blame at the feet of renewables.
The national grid is an aging and under-invested transmission and distribution system. The $27 billion in the infrastructure bill will help address the problem. Is it enough? Hardly, but slowing the introduction of solar and wind isn't the solution.
As chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, one would think that Senator Manchin would be better informed about these things. Wouldn't one?
Why so little faith in West Virginians?
The short-funded program most in Manchin's cross-hairs is the proposed extension of the Child Care Tax Credit in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was enacted in March, 2021. You would think the credits important to a state in which 380,000 people out of a population of 1.8 million live below the poverty line.
The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy reports that 346,00 West Virginia children are eligible for the credit. The Center further reports that the CTC could reduce child poverty in the state by 43 percent—a number consistent with national estimates that the credit would cut child poverty in the nation by nearly half.
The BBB would have extended the $300 per month/per child credit beyond its sunset at the end of December 2021.
The credit was a cornerstone of the recovery package. Although Manchin called the extension—along with the rest of the BBB—inflationary, 17 Nobel Prize-winning economists have disagreed with that assessment.
Manchin seems to have little to no faith in West Virginia families. Multiple media outlets have reported the Senator's concerns that parents will use the money for hunting trips, drugs, and an excuse not to go to work.
According to JoAnna Vance, a grassroots organizer with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC):
I’m just so hurt. This is the chance to actually put an infrastructure in West Virginia so parents can have child care, paid family leave
It appears from the reports that Manchin looks at his constituents and sees them with their hands out demanding the money they think their entitled to for just hanging around. rather than earned with sweat of their brow.
To be fair, Manchin isn't entirely off-base about his concerns. The BBB's proposed $1.85 trillion added to the earlier pandemic emergency legislation could add to an already growing deficit—although not a deficit that should be laid at the feet of the Democrats.
There are answers to Manchin's concerns, but he seems to be ignoring them. Take, for example, the Senator’s concern about wealthier West Virginians collecting the federal payment and using it to pay their bar tabs.
Why not impose limitations, e.g., income or age? It’s done all the time in government programs. It’s done all the time in the private sector. When was the last time a nine-year old drove off the Hertz lot?
In Part 3 of the series, I'll again be addressing directly the arguments of congressional naysayers on the impacts of the BBB on the national debt and where there exists the possibility for some compromise between Manchin, Senate and House Democrats, and the White House.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.