Infrastructure bill would transform energy, but maybe not enough

The bill would spend billions to shift to a lower-carbon power sector. Some say more needs to be done.

Sky turns orange with smoke haze from the Dixie Fire in Quincy, California on July 25. (Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Sky turns orange with smoke haze from the Dixie Fire in Quincy, California on July 25. (Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Posted July 30, 2021 at 6:00am

The bipartisan infrastructure bill in the Senate would spend billions to shift toward a less carbon-centric power sector in the United States, as some advocates say they are looking for more to be done or question the direction of the legislation altogether.

The bill, which includes both baseline and new spending, was devised during weeks of negotiations by 11 Democrats, 11 Republicans and representatives of the Biden administration. It incorporates legislation from Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., that his Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced two weeks ago with the support of three Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Steve Daines of Montana.

Though the Senate could begin debating the legislative vehicle for the bill as soon as Friday, no Senate office has released official text, but multiple congressional offices confirmed the accuracy of a summary circulating around Congress and lobbying circles.

That summary says the deal would provide $550 billion in new spending over five years, $73 billion of which would go to the electric power sector, critical minerals programs, energy efficiency efforts, carbon capture technology and energy demonstration projects in a bipartisan energy bill that was included in the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending package passed last Congress.

Following Texas power blackouts in February, suffocating drought in the western United States, and wildfire smoke that has drifted from west to east, the legislation arrives as the effects of climate change have grown more severe and overhauling the country’s electric networks has emerged as a topic with bipartisan support in Congress.

The deal would authorize $5 billion for the Energy Department to establish a grant program to combat damage to the power grids due to extreme weather, fire and natural disasters; $3 billion for a grant program to make electric grids more flexible in meeting demand; and $3.5 billion for “regional hubs” to work on direct air capture technology that removes carbon from the atmosphere.

The deal also authorizes $8 billion for “clean hydrogen” programs at DOE, roughly $4.7 billion to plug and clean up orphaned oil and gas wells, and about $11.3 billion in funding for the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, a pool of federal dollars used for coal mining cleanup. 

And it would authorize $8.3 billion in funding for the Bureau of Reclamation for water infrastructure in western states and $8 billion for a tax credit for manufacturing and heavy industry.

Critically to Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a pro-nuclear, conservative clean energy group, the deal invests in zero-emission fuel sources while also extending the life of the country’s nuclear fleet, which generates about 20 percent of electricity nationwide.

“If they start to go offline, it’s extremely difficult to even tread water,” Powell said of nuclear plants in an interview.

“This is an enormous deal for clean energy,” he said of the agreement, adding that it would fund energy demonstration projects selected under the energy bill that was folded into the fiscal 2021 omnibus. 

“This would take all of those ideas, all of those authorizations, and it would actually fund the vast majority of those demonstration programs right away,” Powell said. That process would typically take 5 to 7 years, he estimated. “That is just going to be an enormous shot in the arm.”

One of those projects is the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which would get $3.2 billion through fiscal year 2027.

Mitch Jones, policy director for Food & Water Watch, an environmental group, said in a statement that the bill does not provide enough funding for water infrastructure and sends too much money to carbon capture technology, a relatively nascent and expensive technique of trapping emissions before they are released into the atmosphere.

“This deal proposes spending billions of dollars on expensive and totally ineffective carbon-capture technologies and related infrastructure,” Jones said. “This is nothing more than a new set of fossil fuel subsidies that already cost taxpayers $15 billion a year. This is a gift to the fossil fuel polluters that have cynically seized on promoting carbon-capture as a climate solution, when it is nothing more than a means of prolonging the dirty-energy era.”

Going big enough?

Democratic leaders in Congress say the bipartisan agreement is the first of a two-part legislative dance to address climate change, with the second step, the multitrillion-dollar budget reconciliation proposal, expected to contain significantly more funding for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday they will pass legislation that rises to the scale of climate change and the perils it creates.

“What we can do in the next few months in terms of big, bold action is like nothing this nation has ever seen before,” Schumer said. “I will not pass an infrastructure package that does not reduce carbon pollution at a scale commensurate with the climate crisis we face.”

Matthew Davis, senior director of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, said in an interview the summary of the bipartisan deal was not aggressive enough.

“The bill doesn’t do anywhere near enough,” Davis said. “There’s some clean energy technology investments,” he said. But that funding isn’t enough to meet the scale of climate change, he said.

Davis said there was not enough funding for electric vehicles or replacing lead pipes in the infrastructure bill. But taken as a unit, the bipartisan deal and reconciliation bill are much closer to what is needed to address climate change, he said.

“We are very much pushing and underscoring that this bipartisan infrastructure bill is moving in tandem,” he said.

The bipartisan deal also includes parts of Manchin’s bill to establish a grant program for state and local governments to purchase products from captured carbon, and it expands the DOE’s Carbon Utilization program objectives to include development of standards for commercializing carbon products.

Other provisions are aimed at promoting the technology behind capturing carbon and the ability to transport it once captured. That includes low-interest loans for carbon transportation projects and grants for the excess capacity expected in those projects when they are first completed.

Other provisions would allow the Interior Department to permit geologic carbon sequestration of carbon on the Outer Continental Shelf and authorize the development of the four regional direct air capture hubs.

Significant steps

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at Clean Air Task Force, responded to the criticisms of carbon capture and sequestration by citing reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading body of climate scientists, that indicate carbon capture will be required to achieve deep decarbonization.

Schneider said that while the actual bill text was still unavailable Thursday evening, many of the provisions included in the widely distributed summary represent significant climate steps.

Schneider described many of those provisions as promising and important, specifically citing its support for hydrogen technology development, improved grid infrastructure and recovering abandoned mines and wells.

He praised its support for nuclear power and carbon capture. Putting all those pieces together is necessary, he said, to decarbonize the U.S. economy by mid-century.

The Biden administration set a goal in April to cut domestic carbon emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels.

“These are the component pieces — not as big as they need to be, not as full as they need to be — but they represent pieces of the puzzle that ultimately will lead to de-carbonization,” Schneider said. “It’s a great start; it’s not the finish.”

Schneider said he would be looking for more in the expected budget reconciliation package, such as a clean electricity standard, to drive decarbonization.

“The package for clean energy has a lot to recommend it but it’s not everything that’s needed,” Schneider said.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is the primary lawmaker spearheading the push in the Senate for the clean electricity standard, known by the acronym CES.

“This policy clearly fits within the Senate arcane budget reconciliation process,” Smith said during an online panel talk Wednesday.

“This I believe is exactly the kind of policy that we need right now,” Smith said. “It clearly addresses the need that we have right now, an urgent need, to address the climate crisis that is already costing us literally billions of dollars.”

Multibillion-dollar natural disasters — events that cost more than $1 billion to clean up — have cost the U.S. an average of $47.6 billion a year from 1980 through 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As written, the bipartisan deal includes billions for upgrading electrical grids and implementing policies to make siting transmission lines easier, a goal of renewable energy advocates because wind turbines and solar farms are often located in rural areas away from cities, where demand for electricity is high.

Under the bipartisan deal, the Department of Energy would study capacity constraints and congestion when designating National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors.

Solar Energy Industries Association President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said in a statement that the deal is an “important start” with provisions that can help deploy clean electricity, and the association will support it.

“We cannot quit there, however,” Hopper said. "To achieve the necessary emissions reductions, solar will have to grow four times faster than we are growing today. That cannot happen without a long-term extension of the investment tax credit, with a direct pay option, or a policy equivalent that would drive more solar installations.”