Did Joe Manchin Actually Do a Good Thing?

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Hmmm.

Hmmm.
Photo: Francis Chung/E&E News/POLITICO (AP)

On Wednesday evening, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) announced that they had reached a climate compromise in a new package of reforms, marking a sudden reversal on climate from Manchin that surprised basically everyone in Washington. The new legislation, which comes less than two weeks after Manchin said he wouldn’t agree on any climate provisions during the reconciliation process, earmarks $369 billion for energy security and climate change over the next decade and could help the U.S. meet the Biden administration’s emissions reductions goals.

Two weeks ago, I called Manchin, who has taken money from fossil fuel interests throughout his political career, the ultimate climate gaslighter. Now I’m eating my words—but cautiously. Delicately. Like they’re a very small appetizer at a very expensive restaurant, and I may not have enough money to pay the bill, and also maybe later I’ll get food poisoning.

First, what’s actually in this bill? Climate-wise, this new piece of legislation, called the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, is a mere shadow of many of the solutions Democrats proposed in the original Build Back Better bill last year. Still, if passed, it would be the most ambitious piece of climate legislation the U.S. has produced to date. That’s not exactly a Herculean effort, considering the flat-out failure of Congress to pass any sort of climate legislation, like, ever, but we’ll take what we can get.

“We’re still going through the bill, but toplines, I’m speechless,” said Lena Moffitt, the chief of staff of Evergreen Action, a climate change advocacy group. “This seems overall like a really promising development.”

There’s a lot of stuff in the bill making climate hawks happy today. The centerpiece of the climate portion of the legislation is a huge set of tax incentives for renewable energy, which Schumer’s office has estimated will help the U.S. achieve a 40% emissions reduction by 2030.

“This bill represents investments,” said Moffitt. “This is the federal government saying we need to resource the shift away from fossil fuels and the fight to tackle the climate crisis, and this bill does that in a really big way.”

There are other items in the bill to celebrate as well, including $60 billion for various environmental justice programs—what Moffitt calls “unprecedented” investment—$60 billion for investments in domestic renewable energy manufacturing, and $27 billion for a national green bank, a federal finance entity that will use public and private money to fund renewable energy projects. Some other initiatives from Build Back Better are there, albeit seriously watered down: The new legislation, for instance, makes around $1 billion available for energy and water efficiency improvements in affordable housing for the entire country. That’s a wisp of a sum, compared to the $150 billion proposed for various housing initiatives in Build Back Better.

Before everyone gets too excited and decides Joe Manchin is completely reformed, it’s important to consider what he has to say about the bill itself—and how it still binds the U.S. to fossil fuel production and replicates industry talking points about the importance of and gas.

“We must stop pretending that there is only one way to combat global climate change or achieve American energy independence,” Manchin’s statement reads. “As the super power of the world, it is vital we not undermine our super power status by removing dependable and affordable fossil fuel energy before new technologies are ready to reliably carry the load. … This bill does not arbitrarily shut off our abundant fossil fuels. “

Manchin isn’t just giving lip service here—his legislation keeps a door open for polluting fuels. The bill actually ties the success of renewable energy on federal lands to, ironically, the fate of fossil fuels on those same federal lands. The Center for Biological Diversity has flagged what it calls “poison pills” in the bill, chief among them the provision that any new renewable projects on federal lands need to come with new minimums for oil and gas onshore and offshore leasing.

“It’s tricky and nefarious and takes us in the wrong direction,” said Moffitt. “Climate action needs to be built on clean energy and moving away from fossil fuels. That’s not the direction we need to see things go, but that’s not hugely surprising considering who is calling the shots.”

When you’re a seriously sick patient, even a poison pill with a dose of medicine involved is better than no treatment at all. The U.S. is dragging itself over, not the finish line, but the starting line when it comes to climate action. The passage of this bill would be no small feat and would certainly improve the U.S.’s standing as a climate leader on the world stage—which has been lagging for years as administration after administration fails to pass meaningful legislation.

But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found in a report issued earlier this year that all the existing fossil fuel infrastructure in the world is enough to push us over the Paris Agreement limits, and that building more production capacity would be a death knell for keeping warming in check. Any legislation that encourages fossil fuel production of any kind is simply not in line with climate science. It may be tempting to hope that Joe Manchin has seen the light, but it’s clear who still pays his check—and that he’s still making room for fossil fuels to flourish in the U.S. This bill is a promising start, but our future is still at the mercy of the wildly profitable industry calling the shots in this country.





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