Climate groups react to Manchin’s surprise turnaround on reconciliation bill

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U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) returns to a basement office meeting with other senators that included Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Angus King (I-ME), (not pictured) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, December 15, 2021.
Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

Environmental groups reacted with surprise after U.S. Senate Democrats struck a deal on sweeping legislation to address climate change and clean energy, a bill that could help curb the country’s carbon emissions by 40% by the end of the decade.

After lengthy negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Wednesday announced a long-anticipated reconciliation package that would provide $369 billion in funding for curbing emissions, manufacturing clean energy products and advancing environmental justice initiatives, among other things.

Early versions of the bill included $555 billion in tax breaks for clean energy that would cut carbon emissions. Still, clean energy backers and climate groups praised the new deal for including clean energy tax credits that could create thousands of new jobs and boost domestic renewable energy.

“The entire clean energy industry just breathed an enormous sigh of relief,” said Heather Zichal, the head of American Clean Power, a group of renewable energy companies. “This is an 11th hour reprieve for climate action and clean energy jobs, and America’s biggest legislative moment for climate and energy policy.”

Climate activists pointed to a slew of victories in the legislation, including $60 billion for environmental justice programs, $20 billion for climate-friendly agriculture practices and billions of dollars to bolster domestic manufacturing in batteries, solar energy and electric vehicles.

Climate protesters march to the White House on October 12, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

Backers of the legislation also noted that the bill would go a long way toward President Joe Biden’s committment to achieve a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

“To borrow President Biden’s line, this is a big f—–g deal,” Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz said in a statement. “This legislation will save money for families across the country, it will ensure each and every one of us is able to live and work in a healthy community, and it will create good, sustainable jobs.”

Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the agreement the “ultimate clean energy comeback — the strongest climate action yet in the moment we need it most.”

He reserved some criticism, however. “This is not the bill we would have written. It’s time to break, not deepen, our dependence on fossil fuels and all the damage and danger they bring,” Bapna said in a statement. “But this is a package we can’t afford to reject.”

Critical of new leases for oil and gas

However, some groups more strongly condemned the support for fossil fuel projects in the agreement, specifically provisions that would mandate new oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. Manchin, who comes from the coal-rich West Virginia, has argued that drilling in these areas is neccesary for the country’s energy independence.

“We need to jump start renewable energy investment without incentivizing new mining under 150-year-old mining laws that fail to protect people and the environment from harm,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks. “We need to cut climate pollution by stopping the build-out of fossil fuels instead of cutting deals to fast-track permits for more dirty energy infrastructure.”

Activists have argued that avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require halting all new oil and gas drilling on U.S. lands and waters and phasing out existing operations. Drilling on public lands accounts for roughly one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a climate suicide pact,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s self-defeating to handcuff renewable energy development to massive new oil and gas extraction.”

“The new leasing required in this bill will fan the flames of the climate disasters torching our country, and it’s a slap in the face to the communities fighting to protect themselves from filthy fossil fuels,” Hartl said.

If passed and signed into law, the act would be the largest climate investment ever taken by Congress. The Senate will vote on the proposed bill next week, after which it will go to the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

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