Senate’s clean energy fight may vex Biden at climate conference

Democrats fear 'missed opportunity' if agreement is not reached

“The next week is a critical week for President Biden, and for our leadership on the world stage as a country,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“The next week is a critical week for President Biden, and for our leadership on the world stage as a country,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 26, 2021 at 6:00am

With a key pillar of his climate agenda wobbling on Capitol Hill, President Joe Biden and administration officials are downplaying the role of Congress in passing legislation to slow rising greenhouse gas levels as Democratic lawmakers are ratcheting up the pressure to reach a deal on climate legislation before the president heads overseas for global talks in Glasgow, Scotland.

Biden and aides in recent days have minimized a deadlock in Congress over the opposition of Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to a $150 billion clean electricity provision in Democrats’ budget reconciliation package, a sweeping bill aimed at combating climate change and expanding the social safety net.

Without that electricity provision, the U.S. faces a difficult climb to reach its climate goals of cutting emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels, according to analysts at the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm.

Congressional Democrats hawkish on climate are wary of sending Biden across the Atlantic with little to show and no substantial climate provisions from Congress.

“The next week is a critical week for President Biden, and for our leadership on the world stage as a country,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told reporters on Monday.

Before going to Scotland, Biden is scheduled to fly to Rome for a summit of the Group of 20 Nations.

“To have him go to the G-20 and COP26 having to say, ‘Well, we’re still working out the details,’ and then work out the details a week later would be an enormous missed opportunity,” Coons said, using shorthand for the climate summit. “We should empower the president to go speak, particularly in Glasgow where [Chinese President] Xi Jinping will be absent and to pull together our allies in a way that will make a lasting difference for us.”

But administration officials have played down the importance of Congress in pursuing the country's climate targets, pointing to actions from federal agencies, the private sector and executive actions.

“We don't need Congress,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy White House press secretary, said Thursday when asked how the administration plans to meet its climate goals. “We can do it without Congress.”

Less than a week away from the start of Glasgow talks, opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and oil-state Democrats in the House threatens to undercut the U.S. delegation in its negotiations to limit heat-trapping greenhouse gases, which reached a record high last year.

The World Meteorological Organization said Monday global greenhouse gas concentrations hit a record high in 2020 and rose at a faster annual rate than average despite economic and travel lockdowns due to COVID-19.

“At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary-general for the WMO. “We are way off track.”

Under the Paris climate agreement of 2015, world governments agreed to forestall global temperatures ideally from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution and no more than 2 degrees maximum.

There are U.N. climate summits most years, but this one, scheduled for Oct. 31 through Nov. 12, is more important than others. It marks the deadline for countries to submit their climate targets, known formally as “Nationally Determined Contributions,” or NDCs.

While the U.S. and many European nations have submitted more ambitious climate goals since Paris, some high-emitting nations, including Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and Australia did not increase their ambition, according to the Climate Action Tracker, which tallies climate contributions.

The Paris agreement bound governments to submit long-term agreements by 2020, though COVID-19 delayed those submissions after organizers canceled the Glasgow meeting originally scheduled for last year.

Executive orders

Speaking to reporters last week, Jean-Pierre said the president was addressing climate change through executive orders as his administration pursues electric vehicle programs, the phase-down of potent greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons and a build-out of offshore wind farms.

“So we have done a lot here. The president has,” she said.

Asked the next day what Biden’s message would be to world leaders if he arrives in Glasgow without the clean electricity provision ironed out, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said, “His message is that he is a president who will bring the climate crisis back to the top of the priority list for the United States.”

Appearing at a CNN town hall in Baltimore the next day, Biden said the clean electricity provision in the reconciliation bill is one of several climate elements of the legislation.

“That is only one of over a trillion dollars' worth of expenditures for climate change.  It's $150 billion.  It's important,” Biden said.

The proposal, which the Energy Department would manage, would pay electric utilities that move swiftly to close power stations that run on fossil fuels and fine utilities that don’t.

Those billions could be moved to pay for clean energy tax incentives instead, Biden added, noting it could get support from Manchin.

“We can take that $150 billion, add it to the $320 billion that's in the law now that he's prepared to support for tax incentives,” Biden said in an apparent reference to the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate this summer.

“Nothing has been formally agreed to,” Biden said. “There's a lot of things Joe is open to my convincing him that I can use it to increase environmental progress without it being that particular deal.”

Manchin told reporters last week Biden will head to Glasgow “with a full hand.”

House Democrats told CQ Roll Call in recent interviews they want the administration to be more ambitious, quick-paced and detailed in Scotland.

“I'd like us to get more granular,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said in an interview, calling rejoining the Paris deal, which Biden did weeks into office, a “very basic first step.”

“We now need to get into metrics: ‘Well how much and when will you reduce ozone, particulate matter, methane, whatever?” Connolly said. “I think we need the lead in making commitments and getting commitments.”

Said Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., “The more we can give him, the better I think it will be not just for him but for the country and for the future.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., pressed the administration to move with urgency.

“If we’re going to go out in the world and say this is important, it can’t just be words. It has to be action, and it starts here,” Tlaib said of Congress.