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Joe Manchin is wrecking the Senate climate change bill

Democrats' reconciliation spending package is the best hope for action on climate change.

Congress has spent months trying to cobble together a spending package that tackles the majority of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda in one go. As centrists have demanded that Biden and progressives lower the price tag of the reconciliation bill, the media, including me, have often been too focused on the $3.5 trillion price tag. This in turn has been to the detriment of the popular policies in it.

To make amends, for each of the next several days, I’ll dive into an aspect of the bill and what the state of play is. Leading off this deep dive: climate change.

The problem

Of all the issues Democrats are trying to tackle in this spending package, preventing and mitigating climate change is the most consequential — on a national and a global scale.

The promise

Senate Democratic leaders told their caucus in August that the budget resolution they would soon pass would allow for “the most significant investment in tackling the climate crisis in U.S. history and put America on a path to meet President Biden’s climate change goals of 80% clean electricity and 50% economy-wide carbon emissions reductions by 2030.”

Of all the issues Democrats are trying to tackle in this spending package, preventing and mitigating climate change is the most consequential — on a national and a global scale.

In that resolution, various House and Senate committees were instructed to allocate money toward certain climate change-related programs. Here’s how much each committee is tasked with spending over the next 10 years:

  • Senate Energy and Natural Resources: $198 billion
  • Senate Environment and Public Works: $67 billion
  • Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry: $135 billion
  • House Energy and Commerce: $486.5 billion
  • House Education and Labor: $779.5 billion
  • House Natural Resources: $25.6 billion

(Not all of the listed funding is specifically for climate change efforts.)

The policy

Several smaller climate mitigation programs are in the works, but four big-ticket items stand out.

Civilian Climate Corps: Biden called for the creation of a climate-focused reboot, based on the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, in January. The original program hired hundreds of thousands of young men to cut trails, build roads and shape America’s natural parks overall. Biden’s initiative aims to “conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.” Congress is still working out the details of how to put the idea into practice.

Electric Vehicle Tax Rebate: The upfront cost of buying an electric vehicle can make buyers leery, and current tax rebates take time to kick in. Democrats want to provide up to $12,500 in tax breaks at the time of purchase, and the Biden administration wants $15 billion more to build more electric vehicle charging stations throughout the country.

Clean Energy Technology Accelerator: In this latest attempt to start a national “green bank,” the government would use public funds to start a bank that uses deposited private money to finance clean energy projects. And as with other banks, this money would then be paid back so it could be lent out again to new projects. It’s a model that has been really successful overseas and in various states but never tried at the federal level.

Clean Electricity Payment Program: When it comes to reducing carbon emissions in the U.S., climate advocates and experts consider the Clean Electricity Payment Program the crown jewel of the legislative package. The $150 billion program “would reward utilities that generate an increasing amount of electricity from wind, solar, nuclear, or other clean energy sources and penalize those that do not,” The New York Times explained:

The policy aims for the United States to get 80 percent of its electricity from sources that don’t generate carbon dioxide by 2030, up from 40 percent today.

“If that came to pass, it would easily be the biggest thing Congress has ever done on climate,” said John Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group, an energy research and consulting firm. In a recent study, Mr. Larsen found that the biggest climate provisions would only get the United States halfway to Mr. Biden’s emission pledge. But, he said, “getting halfway there in just one bill would be huge.”

The politics

As a senator representing the second-largest coal-producing state and the founder of the coal company that his son runs, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has a stake in the future of coal as an industry; as chair of the Energy Committee, he has been responsible for drafting legislation that makes up the bulk of the climate change-related provisions in the bill.

According to The Times, Manchin’s opposition to the entirety of the Clean Electricity Payment Program may lead to its being cut from the bill. “Senator Manchin has clearly expressed his concerns about using taxpayer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing,” a spokesperson for the senator said.

That doesn’t make sense given the subsidies the fossil fuel industry receives to do things it’s “already doing,” like exploring for new domestic drilling sites. And the issue isn’t that power companies can’t get loans.

No other country has added to the crisis more than the U.S., and it’s up to America to lead the way in reversing it.

“Utilities are not struggling to find banks or other lending institutions to loan them money to build out clean power,” Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., told NPR this month. “What they are working hard to do is to add clean power at a fast rate, the rate that we need in order to meet our climate goals, without having utility rates go up for their customers.”

The White House hasn’t fully given up on the program, but the odds aren’t looking good. And there aren’t backup options that would have the same impact on carbon reduction that would fit into the bill. And while a carbon tax of about 14 cents per gallon of gas is being debated among some senators, the policy isn’t exactly a winner politically.

Meanwhile, Democrats remain divided over the scope and funding of even the less controversial parts of the climate plan. In the House, there’s still no decision about whether the Civilian Climate Corps would be a one-year program under AmeriCorps, as progressives intended, or, as the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee would prefer, a long-term job creation plan spread out through the Labor Department and other agencies’ existing initiatives. Even the electric vehicle tax rebate might be scaled back, making it available only for low-income Americans — even though the goal is to maximize the number of fossil fuel-powered cars taken off the road.


I hate to say this given the number of policies that are being squeezed into this bill, but the climate change policies are at the top of my list of priorities. Nothing else that’s being considered would have a global impact. No other country has added to the crisis more than the U.S., and it’s up to America to lead the way in reversing it. If any of the areas of interest need to be maximized as the overall price is cut, it’s this.

I also wish that I had an answer for how to get around Manchin’s opposition to the Clean Electricity Payment Program in this bill, given that it’s impossible for the overall package to pass without his support. Whatever horse-trading might be necessary, whatever earmarks or carveouts Manchin demands for West Virginia, might be worth it given the stakes. One person should not be able to stand against the vast majority of Americans in condemning future generations to a quickening societal collapse.