Biden’s infrastructure bill will make or break his climate legacy

Doubling down on cutting greenhouse gas regulations.
Doubling down on cutting greenhouse gas regulations.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo
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President Joe Biden is turning to his next legislative priority, a $3 trillion pair of infrastructure bills that put climate change front and center. As first reported in the New York Times on March 22, funding will be directed to the electric grid, energy-efficient affordable housing, electric vehicle charging stations, and other clean energy priorities. It follows a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package signed earlier this month.

The infrastructure package shows that Biden is taking a different approach to the climate crisis than Barack Obama. Rather than centering his climate policy agenda on regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants (as Obama did, with his Clean Power Plan), Biden’s priority is to pour money into new technologies and clean energy hardware with a goal to decarbonize the US electricity system by 2035. The administration is betting that leading with a carrot, rather than the stick, will be the fastest, lowest-cost way to make a lasting dent in emissions, while breathing life in to the post-pandemic economy (new emissions regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency will likely follow).

“This could be the most promising opportunity to make progress on decarbonization across the economy that the US has had in a long time,” said John Larsen, director of climate and energy at Rhodium Group, a research firm. “And as far as getting very quick returns on investments, the power sector is the most important place to make progress.”

How infrastructure spending can benefit the climate

The last time the US saw a big clean energy spending bill was Obama’s $90 billion green stimulus in 2009, which ultimately gave a dramatic boost to solar and wind energy. Biden’s new effort is an order of magnitude greater: The Times reports that the package includes “nearly $1 trillion in spending on the construction of roads, bridges, rail lines, ports, electric vehicle charging stations, and improvements to the electric grid and other parts of the power sector,” as well as “one million affordable and energy-efficient housing units.” The remainder of the $3 trillion is set aside for rural broadband connectivity, building and renovating schools, and job retraining for millions of workers.

As for spending on the power sector, Larsen and his colleagues laid out a few guiding principles for the Biden team in a Mar. 23 report. They recommend dramatically increasing and extending the duration of tax credits for renewables, which are currently scheduled to wind down over the next few years; create new incentives to help existing nuclear power plants stay open; and write off old federal loans made to local governments to build coal-fired power plants, so that those can close ahead of schedule.

The Biden plan also aims to prioritize racial equity, the Times reported, meaning that benefits like the above could be designed to be even greater if they’re used in underserved communities. Fossil fuel infrastructure also creates a lot of toxic local air and water pollution that disproportionately impacts minority neighborhoods, so early coal plant retirements would help on that front as well. Tax benefits for new wind and solar farms could also be tied to fair labor standards, to promote the use of unionized labor.

Your move on climate, Congress

Specific details of the bills have not yet been made public, and whatever the administration proposes will have to survive scrutiny from Congress. Clean energy spending typically receives bipartisan support, but in this case the unprecedented price tag may face some opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

Senate Democrats may opt to try to pass the legislation via a parliamentary maneuver called “budget reconciliation,” which would bypass the need to have a 60-member supermajority, but whether that will be possible will depend on the specific details of the bill and how the administration plans to pay for it. Another thing to watch will be whether the bills include new forms of support for carbon capture and removal technologies, to offset the increase in emissions that would result from the steel and concrete production needed for all those roads and bridges.

“We’re on the edge of our seat to see what comes out of the White House,” Larsen said, “and how Congress responds.”