CONGRESS: How Dems still might get a clean electricity standard

With infrastructure talks in limbo, Democrats and their allies are working on a Plan B for one of President Biden’s most ambitious climate proposals.

The clean electricity standard, which would mandate that 80% of the electric power come from carbon-free sources, is considered the linchpin of Biden’s climate goals. But because Biden attached the proposal to his infrastructure plan, it faces a tenuous future.

Hope is fading that Democrats will have the votes to ram through an infrastructure package without Republican support. And it appears unlikely that GOP lawmakers will back a bipartisan bill with major climate provisions such as a clean electricity standard.

But a group of lawmakers, energy policy experts and activists are determined to make sure Biden’s legacy includes passage of a clean electricity standard — or a similar mechanism — before the 2022 midterms.

It’s necessary to find another avenue for a clean electricity standard because climate policy has been largely excluded from bipartisan infrastructure talks, said John Podesta, a former top Obama aide who oversaw much of the administration’s climate policies.

One option is that Democrats could use reconciliation — a parliamentary procedure that would allow them to pass climate-heavy legislation without GOP support. But Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia have taken issue with that approach.

That means Democrats must proceed carefully, either by finding a way to make reconciliation palatable to moderate Democrats or by finding another path through Biden’s executive authority, because a compromise infrastructure bill “without reconciliation is just a bipartisan agreement to not address the climate problem and fry the planet,” Podesta said.

Cue the Plan B.

Supporters said it’s critical that any Plan B accomplish the same ends as a clean electricity standard. That includes incentivizing utilities to increase their renewable energy goals and to use clean energy tax credits to spur rapid deployment.

“There is a lot of preparation being done,” said Lindsey Walter, deputy director for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program. “If the CES doesn’t end up in the broader package, then there is still a path forward to do a policy that’s like CES in reconciliation. It’s not exactly CES, but it could replicate the impacts of a CES.”

Democratic Sens. Tina Smith of Minnesota and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico are working on a clean electricity standard bill that would require utilities to use more clean energy. It also could contain provisions that would provide alternatives should a CES not get passed through reconciliation. But without reconciliation, they face a steep climb in passing a stand-alone bill that would enshrine a Clean Electricity Standard.

There are other options, Walter said. One would offer conditional block grants to states that achieve 100% clean energy on the power grid. This approach would build on a state’s own clean energy standard and would offer block grants to states based on their utilities’ clean energy goals, according to Evergreen Action. The climate action advocacy group first outlined this strategy in a white paper published in February.

Under the plan, states would be rated on a set of benchmarks. Among them: early retirement of coal-fired power plants, commitment to carbon-free power by 100% and “technology neutral competitive procurement solicitation.” They also would be conditioned on minimum standards for investments in disadvantaged communities, use of unionized labor and job quality assurances, according to the Evergreen plan. It would be structured as a condition of receiving federal dollars and would be instituted through regulations or requirements in the long-term integrated resource plans.

Its best chance of passage, however, remains the reconciliation process. That means it has to be crafted in a way to win over moderates, said Walter of Third Way. That approach also avoids having a floor debate on the difficult question of how to cut the remaining 20% of carbon from the grid by 2035 — an exceedingly difficult goal, she said.

“We know that 80% by 2030 is achievable: It’s something we can do; it has political support,” she said. “And so that’s where a reconcilable clean electricity standard might have the strength over a regular-order clean electricity standard — you avoid the debate about the last 20% entirely.”

Podesta said that even a weak clean electricity standard would allow lawmakers to say they did something. He added that he frequently talks with the White House and said he is certain they are committed to passing more ambitious climate policy than what’s contained in the bipartisan infrastructure package.

Democrats do have a backup plan for a clean electricity standard if infrastructure talks fail to produce a result, he said.

In the near term, Biden’s proposal to provide tax credits for clean energy deployment and electric vehicles would go a long way toward keeping the country on a path similar to a clean electricity standard, Podesta noted. That said, he argued that a clean electricity standard is essential to meeting long-term climate goals.

“Those provisions do a substantial amount of work in terms of clean energy deployment and emissions reduction in the next five, six, seven years,” Podesta said. But, he said, “to get to the net-zero or carbon-free electricity standard, you’ve got to have a clean electricity standard.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of Democrats have threatened to torpedo any infrastructure package that doesn’t include climate.

Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a top climate hawk, said Monday that he wouldn’t support the bipartisan bill — which does little for the climate — without guarantees that clean energy is addressed in a follow-up reconciliation bill.

“There has to be an absolute guarantee that climate is dealt with,” he said during an interview with MSNBC. “Without wind and solar, all electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, without new battery storage technologies, new transmissions systems, we can’t deal with this crisis.”

Other senators expressed a desire to have climate provisions in one big infrastructure bill.

“Climate has got to be part of this. It’s only the greatest moral issue of our time, other than civil rights,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “The Trump party is still a climate denial party. They’re not going to do anything to violate that so Democrats will have a big climate provision in the big bill.”

Climate policy advocates have spent months preparing for this exact scenario, where setups and weakened standards might emerge during negotiations, said Jamal Raad, executive director at Evergreen Action. The group has helped Biden shape his climate policy.

A clean electricity standard won’t die if the infrastructure bill doesn’t get passed, Raad said. Alternative versions could use the Clean Air Act’s executive authority and employ targeted investments to achieve the same goals, he said.

The fate of a clean electricity standard was always going to face the narrow math of today’s political reality, Raad said. But he added that activists won’t settle for scaled-down climate policies. Building out alternative pathways to net zero by developing an alternative CES is what they’ve been preparing for, he said.

“I don’t know what people expected where we would be. We’re in a 50-50 senate. We have fewer than a dozen votes in the House. We have Democratic senators that want a bipartisan bill. This is where we were always going to be at this point,” he said. “That’s why I’m not too dour.”

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