CLIMATE CHANGE - As Democrats work to rapidly finalize the details of their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, climate campaigners on Wednesday urged them to exclude fossil fuels and "false solutions" from a new clean energy program intended to cut down planet-heating emissions.
"We need rapid and ambitious climate policy, not another polluter subsidy."
—Sarah Lutz, Friends of the Earth
Ahead of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's September 13 markup for emissions reduction policies in the evolving package, more than 300 groups sent a letter (pdf) calling on Democrats to use the Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP) to "incentivize the expansion of renewable energy and penalize any expansion of fossil fuels and other false solutions."
A Clean Electricity Standard (CES) requires a certain share of electricity to come from "clean" sources. While Democrats want to include such a policy—also known as a Clean Electricity Standard—in their $3.5 trillion package, lawmakers are constrained by the limits of the budget reconciliation process that they are using to avoid GOP obstruction in the evenly split Senate.
Because of those constraints, and now that both the House and Senate have passed the budget resolution for the full package, congressional Democrats are crafting the CEPP, which relies on financial incentives to utilities to promote a nationwide transition to clean energy.
As E&E News explains:
Utilities would get paid to expand their sales of clean electricity each year. If their sales failed to meet a certain threshold, they'd have to pay a tax. The emphasis on paying companies to install clean electricity is the reason advocates of the idea have a new name for their proposal.
In the context of this proposal, clean electricity includes anything without emissions. So nuclear, hydro, and fossil fuel plants with carbon capture would all qualify, as would traditional renewable energies like wind and solar. This is called a technology neutral approach.
That approach has outraged climate campaigners—including Sarah Lutz of Friends of the Earth, whose group backed the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
"We need rapid and ambitious climate policy, not another polluter subsidy," Lutz said in a statement announcing the letter. "These so-called 'technology neutral' standards are incompatible with the urgent need to transition to sustainable and renewable energy."
Noting that the program, "combined with other tax incentives, will account for over 40% of the infrastructure package's emissions reduction," the groups argue that "because the CEPP does not directly regulate a ramp-down of emissions, the determination of what types of energy can qualify for clean electricity payments will be crucial for the effectiveness of the program."
The organizations call on Congress to penalize utilities for the generation of electricity from "fossil gas with and without carbon capture and storage and other fossil-based technologies; waste incineration and other combustion-based technologies; bioenergy including biomass, biofuels, factory farm gas, landfill gas, and wood pellets; hydrogen; nuclear; and new, large-scale and ecosystem-altering hydropower, and all market-based accounting systems like offsets."
The letter warns:
A CEPP that incentivizes fossil gas and carbon capture and storage will undermine efforts to transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels—a reliance that has created sacrifice zones and disproportional harms on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other communities of color in this country. Similarly, false solutions like nuclear energy, so-called bioenergies, and large ecosystem altering hydropower have proven to be extractive and unsustainable—creating disproportionate environmental harms and health burdens in environmental justice communities.
"The climate emergency cannot be fooled or tricked by legislating that polluting energy sources can now qualify as clean. Likewise, greenwashing dirty energies will not change their environmental injustices," the letter concludes. "Therefore, we urge you to direct incentive payments solely to proven and ecologically sound renewable technologies, such as solar, wind, and geothermal."
That message to Democratic leadership echoed previous demands from campaigners and came a week after the launch of activists' "Gas Is Not Clean" campaign urging lawmakers to make sure gas is excluded from the CES in the reconciliation package. It was also sent the same day as letters from more than 100 climate organizations directed at four key senators.
Those letters were sent to Machin—who last week advocated for a "strategic pause" in the reconciliation process, provoking progressive backlash—and three other members of the panel he chairs: Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.).
Organizations from each senator's state sent similar letters urging them to ensure that the CEPP—an "essential component" of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better agenda—receives the full funding of $150 billion so that "utilities can retire dirty fossil fuel power plants that they have not finished paying off, without passing those costs on to ratepayers."
Each letter is also personalized. The one to Manchin notes that "for over a century West Virginians have carried the burden of our energy needs and it is of utmost importance we don't bear the financial burden as we transition to clean energy." That letter continues:
West Virginians have experienced both the positive impacts, like good-paying union jobs but we have also suffered the negative impacts associated with extraction. Our communities and water have been polluted for decades leaving generations with cancer, asthma, and other lasting health impacts. We have the unique opportunity to stay relevant as an energy producer and restore our healthy communities by adapting to renewable energy sources. The Clean Electricity Payment Program will help ensure we not only benefit from this transition but thrive because of it. A recent study shows that a pathway to 80% clean electricity would create over 3,500 full-time jobs and $20.9 billion in solar, wind, and energy storage investments for West Virginia by 2040.
The letter to King, who caucuses with the Democrats, says that "Maine's abundant wind, solar, water, and forestry resources are economic drivers, and the Clean Electricity Payment Program can further elevate the state as a leader in renewable energy. With full funding of the CEPP, the state can rapidly deploy affordable wind, solar, other clean energy, and battery storage while focusing on rural and other areas where economic development is most needed."
Kelly's letter acknowledges that "Arizona is on the frontlines of the climate crisis—we cannot afford to wait for actions. We continue to see extreme heat, weather, and drought, plus larger wildfires due to our changing climate. That is why we need to act now at a scale to address this significant issue. These important climate investments will both help us move toward stabilizing the climate, but also will benefit our communities with clean energy jobs, cleaner air, and reduced water use. Recent analysis estimated that a national 80% by 2030 policy would lead to $38-48 billion in clean energy investments in Arizona."
The letter to Hickenlooper similarly highlights that "in Colorado and across the West, communities are witnessing the intensifying effects of climate change, and they want all levels of government to take steps to address it. Polling results released this month by Data for Progress and Western Resource Advocates show that a large majority of Colorado voters support the key climate and clean energy provisions in the American Jobs Plan, and 73% of those voters support the plan's provisions to transition to a 100% clean electricity grid."
All four letters—which follow reporting that Manchin will only support $1.5 trillion in spending and progressives doubling down on the larger figure, already a compromise—state that "to ensure the Clean Electricity Payment Program and all the other priorities such as the $300 billion clean energy tax incentives in the reconciliation package can be fully funded, it is important to ensure the top line number of $3.5 trillion remains constant. We urge you to oppose any attempt to decrease the overall spending level of the reconciliation package."
Climate campaigners welcomed the letters to lawmakers, with Jamie DeMarco, federal policy director of the CCAN Action Fund, saying that he is "glad to see the constituents of key U.S. senators stepping up to say that we must fully fund the CEPP," which he called "the lynchpin for climate action."
Patrick Drupp, deputy legislative director for climate and clean air at the Sierra Club, agreed that "a clean electricity system is key to fighting the climate crisis."
"Passage of a Clean Electricity Payment Program and other clean energy investments," he said, "will transform our power system and accelerate an equitable transition away from fossil fuels and toward the carbon-free electricity we need to build a clean energy economy for all."
(Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this article was first published.)